Stateless in the city

Working together to support stateless Shan people in the urban outskirts of Chang Mai, Thailand.

Twenty-three years ago, after five days spent crashing through dense 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 did bring something good — her son Tee Nayord. But the confused young mother knew nothing about the importance of civil registration for her son. She had crossed the border illegally and was too afraid to go to the hospital to register her son’s birth.

Today, Tee Nayord is 23, one of many stateless ethnic Shan migrants from Myanmar living in Thailand, and works on behalf of other migrants at a new resource centre for migrants in Chiang Mai, in north-western Thailand — something that made his mother worry that he would be exposed to legal problems.

Before joining the centre, he 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 Nayord.

“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.”

Of the estimated 3 to 4 million Myanmar migrants in Thailand, some 300,000 live in the greater Chiang Mai area. The majority are ethnic Shan who came to Thailand in search of a safe place to live, work opportunities and better prospects for themselves and their families.

The centre helps Shan migrants in the villages on the outskirts of Chiang Mai understand how to fit into Thai society, learn the language and understand legal options and obligations. Chiang Mai, the ‘Rose of the North’, is not only a hotspot for tourists but also a thriving centre for construction, agriculture, garment and hospitality industries seeking cheap labour. Unfortunately, in their pursuit of profits, local recruiters do not always afford migrant workers the benefits, rights and protections enshrined in Thai labour laws.

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 identity card,” she says.

As in many other countries, migrants in Thailand are often left to cope with their problems alone. In spite of a government 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 civil society and migrant communities.

Inspiring leadership

These are all reasons the Life Skills Development Foundation helps to empower migrants with training, education and other guidance. “Migrant leaders with proper skills and knowledge can help Shan communities understand their rights and entitlements, and support them in difficult situations,” explains Kreangkrai Chaimuangdee, executive director of the Life Skills Development Foundation.

“They are the best resources for developing services for migrants because being part of the community gives them the best knowledge about migrants’ real needs and concerns.

“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, and leadership, organizational, computer and planning skills. The beauty of this programme is that the training courses are designed and delivered by migrants for migrants.

Pattama, 22, works at a launderette from 08:00 till 18:00 for a salary of 7,000 baht (about US$ 200) a month. She is also one of the migrants attending the free Thai lessons. She came to Thailand six years ago with her sister, while their mother stayed behind in Shan state.

An ethnic Shan from Myanmar, 23-year-old Tee Nayord works on behalf of fellow migrants at a resource centre supported in part by the IFRC in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

“When I arrived in Thailand I could not speak any Thai, so my first purchase was a pocket dictionary,” Pattama says. “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.”

Civil society organizations like the Life Skills Development Foundation and the MAP Foundation run radio programmes in Shan language. In addition to receiving important information, migrants can phone in and discuss issues of importance for their communities. Now that the centre is gaining greater acceptance in the community and with authorities, even Tee Nayord’s mother is more at ease with his work with stateless people.

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

Thai Red Cross brings dentists to doorsteps

For more than a decade, the Thai Red Cross Society has been providing free dental care to migrants and other underprivileged groups through mobile dental care clinics. These fully-equipped clinics can be packed into a vehicle, taken where they are needed and set up to operate on the doorsteps of the people who need their services.

“We bring this service to the people directly where it is needed the most. It is free of charge and quick but also a high-quality service,” says Pavinee Yuprasert, who is assistant director of the relief division at the Thai Red Cross’s Relief and Community Health Bureau.

Located an hour outside of Bangkok, Samut Sakhon province is among the largest industrial seafood processing areas in Thailand. It is estimated that up to 200,000 migrants from Myanmar work in Samut Sakhon in the fish and seafood industry. Many of these migrants live and work in Mahachai, a port about 45 kilometres south-west of Bangkok. Mahachai also has one of the biggest fish markets in the country.

Once a month, the Thai Red Cross sets up a mobile dental clinic where most of these migrants work and live. From early morning on, people wait their turn, many returning for the second or third time to continue their treatment. During each visit to Mahachai, the Thai Red Cross mobile dentists provide migrant-friendly services for about 20 patients. Complicated cases, especially the ones requiring surgery, are referred to the city hospital.

Many of the migrants working in the fish industry have long, irregular working hours, making it difficult to them to leave the work site for long periods.

One of these workers, 45-year-old Mao, has lived in Mahachai for five years now, first working as a fisherman on the boats. Now, due to his age and health, he can’t do that kind of heavy labour any more, but has been assigned to clean the fish baskets.

“I work 364 days a year — only New Year’s Day is off. I’m on call all the time to go to work when the boat arrives,” Mao says.

He has medical insurance, but finds it difficult to leave the port for matters that are not urgent, such as dental care. “It would take hours and I would risk problems at work if I’m not available. So I prefer this service that is very close to my workplace and the room I sleep in,” says Mao.


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