Empowering migrants

Red Cross and civil society are working together to support stateless Shan people in Thailand

Today is a big day for Tee Nayord, 23, a stateless ethnic Shan migrant from Myanmar. He is the main host of the opening ceremony of a new resource centre for migrants, located in Sankampeng district of Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

The centre is supported by the Life Skills Development Foundation, the International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the European Commission's Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO). 

Tee tries to be serious and not to show his excitement, but a warm smile lights up his face as he greets his guests.

Twenty-three years ago, after five days spent crashing through a heavy jungle, a heavily pregnant Shan girl set foot on Thai soil for the first time. Fleeing unrest and poverty in Myanmar, Nang Ou was exhausted and frightened. She did not know what the future would bring.

Fortunately, it brought something good - her son Tee. But the confused young mother knew nothing about the importance of civil registration. She had crossed the border illegally and was too afraid to go to the hospital to register Tee's birth. 

Nang Ou's life has been marked by hard work and a daily struggle to provide for her family. All she has wanted is for her son to be safe.

Today Nang Ou glows with pride.

"In the very beginning I was not very positive about Tee's engagement in this project, because I was worried that he was doing something risky", reflects Nang Ou. “But today I am very proud of my son. He is a good person and works hard to help other migrants.

Prior to joining this project, Tee worked as a labourer carrying bags of rice for a few Thai Baht every day - just enough to make ends meet.

"That work was purely physical and required no thinking. I simply followed my boss's orders", recalls Tee. 

“Working on this project has prompted me to think about larger topics that impact myself, my family and my community. This has been a big positive change for me.”

On a rainy evening the ground gets muddy in a makeshift migrant village on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The village, which locals call "a camp", is a maze of metal shacks lined along the sides of dark little paths. The iridescent sheen of small hand-made shrines scattered across unnamed empty streets is the only sign of human presence.

Despite the first impression of being deserted, this village is home to about 260 migrant families from Shan state. For most of them this has been home for more than a decade.

Of the estimated 3-4 million Myanmar migrants in Thailand, close to 300,000 live in Chiang Mai; the majority of them ethnic Shan who came to Thailand in search of safety, work opportunities and better prospects for themselves and their families, both in Thailand and back home.

Chiang Mai, the Rose of the North, is not only a hot spot for tourists but also a thriving centre for construction, agriculture, garment and hospitality industries seeking cheap labour. Unfortunately, in their pursuit of high profits local recruiters do not always afford migrant workers the benefits, rights and protections enshrined in Thai labour laws.

Nong Harn and her little sister were raised in this village and call it home.

In addition to the material infringements, Shan migrants frequently face a high level of prejudice, isolation and discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity and legal status in Thailand. 

Despite her young age, 19-year-old Nong Harn has already experienced this first-hand: often her background limits her access to labour market.

 "Employers should judge you by your skills and not the nationality on your ID card", says Nong Harn.

As in many other countries, migrants in Thailand are often left to cope with their problems alone. In spite of a complaints mechanism for migrant workers recently established in Chiang Mai, Shan people, especially those lacking legal papers and Thai language skills, still opt for help from the civil society and migrant communities.

Inspiring leadership in migrant communities

The Life Skills  Development Foundation empowers migrants through a variety of training courses 

Developing leadership skills and empowering migrants is more important now than ever. 

"Migrant leaders with proper skills and knowledge can help Shan communities understand their rights, entitlements and support them in difficult situations. They are the best resources for developing services for migrants because being part of the community gives them the best knowledge about real needs and concerns of migrants", explains Kreangkrai Chaimuangdee, executive director of the Life Skills Development Foundation. 

"Originally this project was developed for migrants. But today it has evolved into a project owned and run by the migrants themselves."

Supported by the IFRC, the Life Skills Development Foundation has established five resource centres. Every day these centres open their doors to offer migrants training in Thai, English and Shan languages as well as workshops to build self-esteem and motivation, leadership, organisational, computer and planning skills. The beauty of this program is that the trainings are designed and delivered by migrants for migrants.

Pattama, 22, is one of the migrants attending the free Thai lessons. She came to Thailand six years ago together with her sister, while their mother stayed behind in Shan state.  Pattama would love to go back home, but knows that there are no job opportunities there.

"When I arrived in Thailand I could not speak any Thai, so my first purchase was a pocket dictionary. I always wanted to do Thai language courses but I could not afford them, so I really appreciate these free lessons. With better language skills I hope to get a better paid and less physically demanding job", Pattama says.

"Originally this project was developed for migrants. But today it has evolved into a project owned and run by the migrants themselves."

In keeping with new best practices of community engagement, civil society organisations like the Life Skills Development Foundation and MAP foundation run radio programs in Shan language. In addition to receiving important information, migrants can phone in and discuss issues of importance for their communities. 

Migrants can also suggest and benefit from bespoke trainings. They simply come to the field offices to discuss their ideas with the project core team. Then the trained fellow migrants help them turn their ideas into reality.

"Two-way communication is very important for this marginalised group", says Marwan Jilani, head of the IFRC's country cluster support team in Bangkok. 

“When they are consulted and included as important actors in the program, not just as receivers, then everyone benefits - the migrants, their families, host communities and society as a whole. It is the most effective way to empower the most vulnerable to become agents of change and development."

Words by Elena Nyanenkova, photos by Mirva Helenius

The Rights of Migrants in Action, a 42-month project co-funded by the European Union, aims to promote and protect the human rights of migrants in targeted countries, migration corridors and regions through a globally coordinated civil society action, with a specific focus on migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. To learn more visit www.ifrc.org