21 July 2014

Children of a lost generation

Children and grandparents at a village in Khon Kaen Province. In Thailand, more than 3 million children do not live with their parents due to internal migration. © UNICEF-Thailand/2014/Aphiluck Paungkaew

Story by Nattha Keenapan/ Photos by Aphiluck Puangkaew 

 (The story is published in the Nation newspaper on July 19, 2014)

KHON KAEN, Thailand,  July 2014 – Every  night, Seng Codechum, 53, gets up several times in order to prepare infant formula for her seven-month old grandson. In the bedroom she shares with her 63-year-old husband and four-year-old grandson, the baby’s crying awakens the two elders, who take turns feeding him. It has been quite some time since their sons and daughters in law left home in Khon Kaen’s Baan Nong-Or village to find work in the big cities, leaving the young children in their care. 

“His parents left him with us when he was one month old,” said Seng, pointing to her younger grandchild. “The elder one they left when he was three days old.” 

Across Thailand, about 21 per cent of children under the age of 18, or some three million children – are not living with their parents mostly due to internal migration, according to the findings of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) conducted by the National Statistical Office with support from UNICEF in 2012. In the northeastern region, the rate is almost 30 per cent. 

 “The number of children left behind in Thailand is remarkably high compared with other countries and should be a major cause of concern,” said Andrew Claypole, Chief of Social Policy for UNICEF Thailand. “People in Thailand think it is normal for grandparents or others to take care of grandchildren whose parents have migrated. It is not. The scale of the internal migration phenomenon in Thailand is massive and unlike other countries where MICS studies have been conducted.”

According to MICS 2012 survey data, only 5 per cent of children in Lao PDR are not living with their parents, while the rate in Vietnam, Costa Rica and Nigeria is 4.4 per cent, 3.4 per cent and 6.5 per cent, respectively.

In 2013, Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) began conducting a UNICEF-supported long-term study on the impact of internal migration on young children. The study in Khon Kaen and Phisanulok provinces is tracking 1,000 children aged 0-3 years old who either are living or not living with their parents. The research, which will be carried out over four years, will assess the impact of extended parental absence on their children’s well-being and development.

The study, “The Impact of Internal Migration on Early Childhood Well-being and Development: a Longitudinal and Mixed-Method Study”, is looking at the impact of parental migration on several aspects of early childhood development, as well as the effect of such migration on caretakers, including their mental health and household finances.

“In the absence of their parents, nearly 90 per cent of the children are living with their grandparents, most of whom have only a primary education background,” said Associate Professor Aree Jampaklay, the leader of the IPSR research team, citing the study results from the first year. “We also found that about 36 per cent of the caretakers, mostly grandparents, are at risk of having mental health problems.”

In northeastern region, nearly 30 per cent of children do not live with their parents, and most live with grandparents. © UNICEF Thailand/2014/Aphiluck Paungkaew

Results from the study’s initial phase showed that 25 per cent of children not living with their parents have developmental delays, compared with 16 per cent of children who are living with both parents. The children left behind by their parents also lag in other developmental aspects development, especially language skills.

“I can see a clear difference here,” said Sumit Osopama, a teacher at Baan Nong-Or Early Childhood Development Centre in Khon Kaen’s Nampong district. “Children who live with their grandparents weigh less and are shorter than children in the same age group who live with their parents. It seems that the grandparents do not pay much attention to their grandchildren’s diets. They don’t play with or read for the children. They don’t really know how to stimulate the children’s development.”

Nearly half of the children in Baan Nong-Or village do not live with their parents, said Sumit, who thinks that  the grandparents depend too much on teachers like him to stimulate their grandchildren’s development and learning ability.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Seng sat on the front porch of her house with both of her grandchildren on her lap. She smiled as she gently patted their heads, but her eyes showed her fatigue.

“It’s really tiring raising young children. I have to smack him sometimes when he doesn’t eat,” Seng said, looking at the elder grandson, who usually eats just once a day.   “Sometimes all he eats are some cheap snacks and a few spoons of rice.  He likes going out and playing with friends, but I don’t want him to do that. I don’t have the energy to run after him.”

Since she started suffering from diabetes, Seng said that it is now even more difficult for her to read for her grandchildren due to poorer eyesight.

Across Baan Nong-Or and nearby villages, many grandparents are struggling to pay for their grandchildren’s food, especially infant formula. They seldom have money left over to buy the children books or educational toys.  Just about every grandparent interviewed complained that they receive only a little money from the parents who have migrated, and that these remittances are never consistent.

The IPSR study reflects these financial worries. In households where fathers are absent, about 40 per cent of fathers had not sent home any money during the previous six months. In addition, nearly 30 per cent of fathers had never contacted their children or their children’s caretakers.

“They send us 1,000 baht every three to four months,” said Seng, adding that their sons call regularly but visit just once a year. “The infant formula alone is 3,000 baht a month already. I’m not sure what my sons do for a living, but they said they will come and take their children to live with them when they are rich.”

Seng’s neighbor, Siho Wilaipit, 55, and his wife face a similar situation. Their son left his three-year-old daughter with them several months ago after his wife ran away.  The elderly couple needed to find some construction work in order to cover their granddaughter’s expenses.

“We have to work harder and we cannot stop. Because if we stop, our granddaughter will have nothing to eat,” said Siho, whose son, who works at a factory in Chonburi Province, has sent them only 5,000 baht since late last year. “The child misses her father. But my son said he couldn’t take care of her by himself and cannot afford to hire a caretaker to look after her there.”

Like many grandparents who now have to look for work to pay for their grandchildren’s expenses, Seng’s husband, Piang, occasionally earns money, in his case by mowing his neighbors’ lawns. But there is not work like this to be found every day.

“I have problems sleeping these days,” said Piang, who also suffers from heart disease. “I get stressed thinking about my grandchildren’s future.”

The IPSR study will continue to track the wellbeing of the sample of 1,000 children for the next two years, with the final results of the study expected in early 2016.

“The IPSR research will increase understanding on the potentially negative impact of internal migration on child development,” said UNICEF’s Claypole. “It will also help identify the social and emotional costs paid by children, parents and caregivers from the long-term lack of contact caused by migration.”

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