Bleak future awaits ‘stateless’ children

While in South-east Asia’s capitals there is talk of regional integration, the border towns are home to thousands of stateless children with little expectation from such stirrings of regional solidarity.

These are the offspring of migrant workers who have crossed international boun-daries to find work or escape repression. They lack identity papers in the foreign country they were born in while the home countries of their parents refuse to recognise them as citizens. Stateless children in Thailand stand out as a distinct group within the migrant community in a vast area that spans southern China’s Yunnan province and stret-ches into Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

There could be close to 100,000 such children in Thai border towns such as Mae Sot and Ranong, add migrant rights activists like Jackie Pollock of the Migrant Action Programme (MAP), an NGO based in Thailand’s northern town of Chiang Mai. And their numbers are increasing in the wake of greater migration within the region that shares the Mekong River. Currently there are an estimated two million migrant workers who have left their homes for neighbouring countries in search of jobs, states a report released recently by Mekong Migration Network.

“From the 1960s to 1980s, the migrants from GMS (greater Mekong sub-region) were mostly refugees; in the 1990s, this group is a mix of refugees and migrant men, women and families seeking work across borders,” states ‘Migration in the Greater Mekong Subregion.’ Of the six countries studied in the report — Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China’s Yunnan province and Vietnam — the bulk of the migrant worker flow has been to Cambodia, Thailand and China’s Yunnan province.

Thailand has the largest migrant worker population — over a million — due to the work opportunities in its comparatively successful economy. In 2003, states the report, the per capita income in Thailand was $2,291, which was 12 times higher than Myanmar’s, which was $179. Currently, there are over 900,000 migrant workers from Myanmar working in agriculture, fishing industry, construction, factories and as domestic workers. Cambodian workers number some 183,000 and Laotians, about 179,000.

Cambodia, meanwhile, hosts anywhere between 150,000 to an unofficial estimate of 1.2 million Vietnamese workers employed mostly in the construction sector and small trade while many of the women are in the sex industry. The children born to Vietnamese migrant workers in Cambodia appear to be facing lesser hurdles to get birth certificates than the thousands deprived of them in Thailand and parts of southern China. That is due to the presence of Vietnamese communities in Cambodia.

The plight of these children has been compounded by the reluctance of the Mekong sub-region countries to sign a 1990 UN convention to protect the rights of migrant workers. Consequently, the governments avoid being held accountable to the standards set by this convention, which came into force in 2003.

“It is dangerous to have a large stateless people,” says Christopher Lowenstein-Lom of the International Organisation of Migration’s Asia-Pacific region. “If these children are excluded from health programmes, education and job, it could lead to alienation and disenchantment,” he adds. — IPS