Burmese migrants in Thailand wave on a street corner

A Better Life for Burmese Migrants in Thailand

Through nutrition and health support, Holt sponsors and donors help meet the needs of vulnerable children and families living in a Burmese migrant community in Thailand. Read the story of one 3-month-old boy who is thriving while in kinship care with his extended family in this community.

It’s a cloudy Monday in August when we visit Bennu and her 3-month-old nephew, Thet, at their home outside of Bangkok. We follow our interpreter down a long, dark corridor in a stone block building that’s tucked behind roadside shops lined with potted plants. Even though her home is inside an apartment building, Bennu has hung wind chimes made of shells outside her front door. She welcomes us inside with a warm smile — her nephew filling her arms. Thet is calm and quiet, his eyes big and curious, and he is dressed in bright red pants and matching cap, a traditional color in Burmese culture.

“We were so happy to take him home,” Bennu shares with us, speaking through our Burmese native interpreters, TharNge and Koh, of the Proud Association — an organization that serves Burmese refugees and migrants living in Thailand. “My husband so enjoys raising boys.”

A boy in kinship care with his aunt who are Burmese migrants in Thailand
When the authorities asked Bennu if she would care for her 3-month-old nephew, she knew that if she didn’t say yes, he would go to live in an orphanage.

Bennu didn’t know Thet existed until the police came to her home trying to identify his mother, who had been captured on video leaving her newborn son in front of a factory. Bennu recognized her sister in the video. She didn’t even know her sister was pregnant, but soon learned that she had given birth to Thet at home and, unable to care for him, brought him to the factory. She then watched from a distance for four hours until she knew her son was safe — until someone found him and took him inside. But it’s illegal to abandon a child in Thailand, and Thet’s mom is now serving an 18-month prison sentence because of it.

 Most migrant workers entered Thailand for jobs with the hope that they would get greater access to employment, earn higher wages and create better opportunities for themselves and their families than was possible in their countries of origin. But some escape from political unrest and battles in their origin country, like Myanmar.” 

Goranid “Tuk” Sudmee, Social Services Director at Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF)

Bennu and her husband had been down this road before. They had already taken in Thet’s older brother — a now 6-year-old boy. “She just couldn’t care for him, and she felt bad,” our interpreter says of the boy’s mother.

Bennu and her husband earn minimal income. They already had two children to care for — including their own child, a little girl in a dress dotted with red cherries who plays outside in the hallway as we talk. But when the authorities asked if Bennu and her husband would provide kinship care for Thet while his mom was in prison, they instantly said yes. They knew that if not for them, he would go to live in an orphanage. And he would never receive in an institution the kind of loving, attentive care they could provide at home with them.

“He is an easy boy, a healthy boy,” Bennu says, Thet bouncing on her lap where she sits on the hard concrete floor.

Migrants Struggle to Afford Food and Healthcare

Accompanying us on our visit with Bennu and Thet is Goranid “Tuk” Sudmee, social services director at Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF), Holt’s longstanding partner in Thailand.

Like many of their child welfare cases, HSF learned about Thet because his family needed help meeting his needs — especially his nutritional needs. Formula is expensive, and Bennu’s husband — the family’s only breadwinner — could not afford it on the income he earns from working in a wood factory.

“It’s 300 Baht for one box of formula,” Tuk explains. “To feed Thet, they need six boxes for one month.” Their rent alone is 1,500 Baht/month. A month of formula costs 300 Baht more than their rent.

Still, the income Bennu’s husband earns is greater than he would earn back home in Myanmar.

Bennu feeds Thet the formula that HSF provides every month with the support of Holt sponsors and donors. A month’s worth of formula is more expensive than their monthly rent.

Like many migrants from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bennu and her husband left their home country in search of work. They came to Thailand 10 years ago and have made a life here. Bennu stays home to care for their children, and her husband manages to support his family on what he earns at the factory. In Myanmar, he would earn far less for the same work and pay more for basic needs, Tuk says.

mother holding twins in Thailand

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“The cost of living is increasing, but wages are very low,” she explains. “He would not be able to provide for their whole family.”

Although Thet is an easy baby to care for, it’s not easy for Bennu and her husband to provide for an additional child.

But Holt sponsors and donors in the U.S. have made it easier for them to care for Thet.

With their support, HSF can deliver monthly supplies of formula to help Thet grow healthy and strong. Thet and his family are among many children and families that Holt’s local partner is now serving in this vulnerable migrant community. While some of the families in this community are Thai nationals, most are migrants from neighboring countries including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

 “Most migrant workers entered Thailand for jobs with the hope that they would get greater access to employment, earn higher wages and create better opportunities for themselves and their families than was possible in their countries of origin,” Tuk explains. “But some escape from political unrest and battles in their origin country, like Myanmar.” 

A boy in a Burmese migrant community in Thailand has his head circumference taken
In addition to providing nourishing formula for Thet, Holt’s partner in Thailand monitors his growth and development.

The language barrier is one of the challenges of working in this community. But both HSF and Holt’s model has always been to partner with local organizations, schools and community leaders who know and understand the children and families we seek to help. Made up of Burmese nationals, the Proud Association staff speaks multiple dialects of the Burmese language and understands the culture of the Burmese migrant community in this region. In partnership with the Proud Association, HSF provides support and resources for the children and families — including nutrition, parenting education and growth monitoring to ensure children are developing at a healthy rate.

They are considered “stateless.” And without many rights or protections, they and their children — including children born in Thailand — are especially vulnerable to exploitation including sexual violence, human trafficking and forced labor.

While interviewing Bennu, Tuk and Koh wrap a measuring tape around Thet’s head to get his head circumference and lay him out on a fold-out measuring board to determine his height — two significant indictors of his growth. Separated from his mom at birth and left outside for hours until someone found him, Thet developed sepsis as a newborn. He has some delays as a result. But overall, because of the nurturing care he receives from his aunt and uncle — and the nutritional support provided by Holt sponsors and donors — he is a healthy boy.

Soon, HSF social workers will also provide Holt’s Child Nutrition Program training to Koh’s team — empowering them to track how children are growing and developing over time and determine any needed health interventions such as supplements for vitamin deficiencies. These services are especially welcome here as access to health services are very limited, and quite expensive for a family living on migrant worker wages. While healthcare is free for Thai nationals, only migrants with legal migration status are covered — and Thai legislation does not extend these benefits to spouses and children.

Too Dangerous for Burmese Migrants in Thailand to Return Home

Before visiting Bennu and Thet, we stopped off to deliver sports equipment at a school for the children of Burmese migrants held inside a Buddhist monastery nearby. Bennu’s 6-year-old daughter attends this school, which is informally held in a donated two-story temple that operates without running water or electricity. About 180 students, ages kindergarten through high school, attend the school. Some of the children migrated from Myanmar with their families, but most — like Bennu’s daughter — were born in Thailand to Burmese parents.

As we walk inside, cheerful voices echo loudly off the temple walls. The students don’t have classrooms with walls, but their classes are divided by chalkboards. The boys wear shorts and the girls wear traditional red sarongs and white collared uniform shirts.

One of the teachers, a missionary from Myanmar, shares that they teach the children multiple languages — Thai, English, Mon and Burmese. They learn their native language so that they can communicate if they ever return home.

“But most,” Tuk says, “will not go back home.”

Burmese migrant students at desks in Thailand
Students living in a Burmese migrant community study in a donated space if they can’t afford to attend public school in Thailand.

With their home country embroiled in an ongoing civil war between several armed ethnic groups and a military dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of Burmese nationals have fled Myanmar over the past few decades — seeking asylum in Thailand and other neighboring countries. While many Burmese refugees fled their homes due to violence and persecution, Myanmar’s economy has also suffered under military rule — causing an influx of migrants, like Bennu and her husband, who crossed the border into Thailand in search of work.

While Thailand created a pathway for these families to lawfully stay in the country as registered migrant workers, the process is complicated and expensive and can take many years to complete. In the meantime, migrants cannot legally work, open a bank account, vote or own property in Thailand. They are considered “stateless.” And without many rights or protections, they and their children — including children born in Thailand — are especially vulnerable to exploitation including sexual violence, human trafficking and forced labor.

Bennu’s 6-year-old daughter runs and plays in the long corridor inside their apartment building.

But Tuk shares that in recent years, Thailand has made greater effort to provide basic rights to children of migrant families, and also to provide registration for “stateless children” who are born in Thailand — which helps protect them from human trafficking.

“Thailand moves on ensuring access to basic rights of children in various areas, particularly education and health services, so most of the stateless children go to public schools if the family can afford the school fees or get communities’ support,” Tuk says. “If not, these children go to the center at the temple.”

Even if the Burmese children attend another school, the temple offers an additional education that they won’t receive at a Thai public school.  “For those children who go to regular public schools, most of them are required by their parents to attend class at the center for learning their dialect language, culture, tradition and their way of life in maintaining their identity and strengthening their sense of their community,” Tuk says.

Sponsors Help Burmese Children & Families Have Better Lives

Bennu would like for her daughter to grow up in Myanmar, but the ongoing conflict is too dangerous for them to return. Bennu and her husband have now lived in Thailand for most of their adult lives. And although, like many migrant workers, they have moved around a lot, they have lived in their current apartment for six years. The space is small and cramped for five people, with no partition separating the living space from the bedroom. But they have decorated the space and made it a home, with family pictures on the walls and colorful floral wallpaper brightening the living room.

When Thet’s mom gets out of prison, she will come to live with them in their apartment. Bennu will likely continue to be Thet’s primary caregiver — and HSF will continue to provide nutritional and childcare support for Thet.

Thet surrounded by all the women in the community who have come together to care for him.

Because the migrant families move around a lot, Thet and the other children HSF cares for in this community are not directly sponsored. As Tuk explains, “These are shifting targets as there may be a lot of change due to the families moving around for new jobs with better income. Some of them will relocate back to their country.”

But for as long as these migrating families live in this community, HSF — and Holt sponsors and donors — will help provide immediate care for their children and empower them with knowledge and resources that will help their children thrive, even after they have moved on.

As new families migrate to the area, HSF social workers and partners will also be ready and available to help.

As Tuk says, “We would love to keep working with children in need, help their families to access essential healthcare and improve their quality of life.”

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