Stay to learn, or leave to earn? Assessing large-scale migration to Thailand
by Maryann Bylander
In 2009, I sat down with the now-retired principal of Prasat Knar, a primary school about 80 kilometers away from the Thai border. “At the beginning of the school year, we had 67 sixth grade students,” he stated softly. “Now, only 34 will graduate.” He pushed his fingers into his temples as he described the increasing numbers of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who had quit school after Khmer New Year to follow their friends to Thailand for work:
“I think we are going to be soon a forgotten village. There is no one left but the very old and the children. How can we continue to develop like this? We have the World Food Program that supports school breakfasts, we have teachers who come, we love the students, we have enough classrooms, but still students go to Thailand instead.”
Though Prasat Knar is now a school that PEPY supports through our SAS program, at the time we were speaking, PEPY had only one small project at the school and was just starting to consider additional programming there. I was with a team visiting to discuss some of the general challenges that teachers and families in the area faced. Though the principal had addressed a number of issues— lack of water, poor motivation for education, droughts, and floods— everything came back to the problem of migration to Thailand, something he felt was a defining feature of rural life.
I could understand why. During the time I spent working with PEPY, and later doing research in the area from 2007-2011, it seemed I had relatively few conversations that didn’t include some reference to Thailand. Most households had someone from the family working in Thailand (illegally, in most cases), either on pineapple or potato plantations by the border, at construction sites in Bangkok, or in the service or tourism industry somewhere in the south. Making between 150 and 250 baht per day (US$5-8), migrants were able to make significantly more than they could imagine possible in rural Cambodia, even as teachers or 12th grade graduates.
In Chanleas Dai, as in many rural areas across the developing world, a combination of economic and social factors have led to growing levels of international migration to wealthier neighboring countries. A lack of jobs, poor natural resources, environmental shocks such as floods and drought, poor education prospects, and a lack of insurance and credit markets at home all push families towards migration. It has been increasingly hard for young people in rural areas to support the land and resource needs of new families when they marry and start families of their own.
Migration began in Chanleas Dai in the mid-1990s, when the area became relatively stable and middlemen began to come into the area to recruit willing workers to go to Thailand. While migration was at first incredibly dangerous, over time migrant networks have become strong and far-reaching, leading to decreases in both the economic costs and the risks of migration. Today most migrants choose their site of work before they cross the border, migrate with friends or relatives, and have contacts from their hometowns in Thailand where they are working. Reasonably cheap telephone connections and reliable networks of middlemen connect migrants with their families, and most migrants return cyclically for holidays, harvests or local events. Though illegal, migrants are able to register with the Thai government for a fee if they choose, regularizing their status and giving them both legal permission to work and some protection over exploitation and abuse. Though estimates vary, at least 250,000 Cambodians are currently working in Thailand, with some projections as high as 400,000.
For those who live in Chanleas Dai, migration is perhaps the most defining feature of the social landscape. With few easy livelihood options in local communities and strong networks that make migration easy, affordable, and relatively safe, migration is a constant possibility for anyone of working age and their families.
While most people in the area see migration as both necessary and positive—as a system leading to a better livelihood— it poses a significant threat to PEPY’s education work in Chanleas Dai. Students at the junior high school regularly drop out of school to migrate and support the livelihoods of their families. Some do so with the support (or at the request of) their parents, and others despite deep objections from their family members. At the primary school level, students are routinely pulled out of school for periods of time while their parents take them to work in Thailand. Others are left in the care of older relatives for months and sometimes years while their parents work abroad. Often, teachers complain that older generations are less invested in the education of students, and that it is harder for students to do well and remain in school when their parents are abroad working. Additionally, as their peers and family members migrate, young people look more and more toward Thailand themselves, considering migration as an option as soon as they are old enough to make money working. Teachers are also affected. In the past, both contract and full-time teachers have left their government jobs to cross the border, with the expectations of higher salaries in Thailand.
At PEPY, migration is a relatively constant topic of discussion as well, since our programs have to be developed and implemented with the pressures of migration in mind. While we know that for many households migration is necessary, we also believe that young people should have broader options, and hope through our work to expand the opportunities for young people in rural Cambodia beyond the Thai border. While we have no explicit “counter-migration” programs, in all our programs we try to encourage students to think critically about migration choices. We hope that through our work, young people in Chanleas Dai will have more of a critical perspective on the options available to them, tools to take advantage of those options, and an ability to build and sustain their lives in Cambodia, if they so choose.
Maryann Bylander was PEPY’s Managing Director from 2007-2010 and is currently on PEPY’s Board of Directors.