25 May 2011

The Road Home: A Burmese boy trafficked into Thailand

By Heamakarn Sricharatchanya/Video by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on May 24, 2011)

BANGKOK - Fahan (not his real name) smiles as he jokes around with his friends at the Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys, which has served as his temporary home since March 2010. But those smiles due little to hide the deep sadness in the eyes of this nine-year-old Burmese boy, a sadness that perhaps stems from the abuse he suffered before coming to Pak Kred.

Over a year ago, Fahan and his sister were trafficked from Myawaddy, Myanmar, a rough and tumble border town opposite Thailand’s Mae Sot district. They were pushed onto a bus and brought to Bangkok, where they were forced to sell roses to tourists on the street at night. If they dared disobey the broker who brought them to Bangkok to work on the streets, they were beaten.

Finally, unable to stand their living conditions any more, Fahan and his sister managed to escape. They fortunately met up with a Thai person, who upon hearing their story took them to the police.

While his sister was placed in a reception home for girls, Fahan was brought to the Pak Kred Reception Home for Boys, which is also known as Bann Poomvet, in Nonthaburi. The reception home provides temporary shelter for over 130 Thai and foreign boys between the ages of 6 and to 18 who are in need of protection. Some of the boys are street children, orphans or beggars, while others are victims of trafficking, abuse or domestic violence.

About 40 per cent of boys at Bann Poomvet are from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

Bann Poomvet is the only reception home for boys in Thailand. It was established over 50 years ago to provide boys in need with basic assistance, education and vocational skills on a short term basis, or for about three months. However, some non-Thai boys remain at the shelter much longer if their families cannot be traced, or if they have to serve as witnesses in criminal cases related to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking.

A few boys from Myanmar have stayed at Bann Poomvet for five years already because they arrived in Thailand when they were very young and are unable to remember their hometowns or their families.

“These shelters are meant to be temporary, but some foreign children end up staying for a long time,” UNICEF Child Protection Officer Sirirath Chunnasart said. “If they are from Myanmar, it can take years to trace their families. In the meantime, they often miss out on an education because they don’t have access to classes in their own language.”

Education for non-Thai children

At the shelter, we support our partner Friends International in providing life-skills and non-formal education to children in their native languages. Once they understand Thai, they can start taking some of the vocational education programmes being offered, such as hair styling, making handicrafts and learning how to play music.

Min Yarzar Tun, a young Burmese who is one of Friends International’s staff members, goes to the shelter with another staff member from Cambodia three times a week to teach the foreign children kids and organise recreational activities for them.

“We teach by following the curriculum of each country,” said Yarzar. “We decide which grades the children should be in, and then tailor our classes to suit the needs of the individual children.” The shelter, Yarzar said, now offers grades 1-3, with subjects such as mathematics, language, geography and culture.

The staff also write up case reports on the children which contains information about the reasons they come to Thailand and problems they face back home. The reports are given to government agencies in each country where officials try to locate the children’s families.

Not every child is sent back home even if the family is found – it is up to the government of each country to decide whether the child should be sent to his old family or stay at a shelter.

“If the children were forced to come to work in Thailand by their own parents, or were abused or exploited by the family, then their government may decide it is better for the children to stay at a shelter and receive education, vocational training and protection than to go back home,” he said.

The story of Fahan

In the case of Fahan and his sister, the broker went directly to their family and offered them 3,000 baht for the two children. Fahan’s parents, members of one of Myanmar’s impoverished minority groups, accepted.

“Three thousand baht is a lot of money in Myanmar,” Yarzar explained. “Brokers promise to look after the children, give them an education and pay the parents every month. But they usually stop paying after a few months.”

Fahan did not receive any schooling when he was with the broker. According to Yarzar, he and his sister slept during the day and would be forced to sell flowers from 8 p.m. until early in the morning. They earned about 1,000 baht a night, but the broker only gave them 10 baht each for a snack.

“Fahan did not trust anyone at first because of his experiences,” Yarzar said. “He was very quiet and afraid of everything. I had to play with him a lot and build a relationship with him step-by-step. But he is happy now and makes friends with everyone.”

Fahan said he likes to study both Burmese and Thai, and to listen to Burmese songs. During his free time, he enjoys volunteering in the kitchen, where in return for his help he is given the privilege of eating before the other children. Fahan’s sister is now back with her parents, and he hopes it will be his turn soon.

“It’s much easier to refer Cambodian children back home than the Burmese kids,” said Yarzar, noting that it can take up to a year to get Brumese children resettled back with their families.

In Cambodia, there is a Poipet Transit Centre, a government-run shelter that receives repatriated and deported children from Thailand. The centre provides temporary shelter and support for the children while it tries to locate their families. But the cases of Burmese children are different, as the

Burmese government will not receive them until their families are found, Yarzar said. Fahan is one of the lucky ones. His family has already been located, and he will reunite with his parents and three other siblings soon.

“I miss Myanmar and my family very much,” Fahan said in Thai. “I cannot wait to go home.”

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