The impact of parental migration on the children left behind and their caretakers
By Alisa Tang
BURIRAM, Thailand, June 2012 - Each morning, the elderly women of this sleepy farming village hop on their motorcycles or plod along rural roads to drop off their grandchildren at the village pre-school or at the elementary school. The women tuck a few coins into the children’s pockets for snacks, head home and then return in the afternoon to pick up their charges.
In this village – as in many parts of this northeastern Thai region known as Isaan – a majority of the children’s parents have left them behind for jobs in Thailand’s urban centers, leaving the grandparents – usually the maternal grandmother – to take care of their offspring.
“About 80 per cent of the children here live with their grandparents. The grandparents come to pick the children up from school, and the parents only come home to plant and harvest the rice,” said 32-year-old Runee Srihan, a teacher at Baan Tabaek Daycare Center and one of the few younger adults in the village. “If you go into the neighborhoods, there are only elderly people and children.”
A 2006 study by the Thai government and UNICEF found that 17.5 per cent of Thai children – whose parents are still alive – are not living with their parents. In Isaan, where many parents migrate for work, almost a quarter (24 per cent) of children are not living with their parents. This compares with 18 per cent in northern Thailand, 13 per cent in the central region and 8 per cent in the south.
“The sheer scale of the phenomenon of children left behind by internal migration in Thailand is remarkable compared with other countries at the same level of development,” said Andrew Claypole, chief of the social policy section for UNICEF Thailand.
“Migration in search of better opportunities is a global and historical fact, but parents usually hope it will be short-lived and that the family can eventually be reunited, either by returning to the home village or by bringing their children to live with them,” Claypole noted. “But in Thailand, it has somehow become normal for the separation to become long-term, if not permanent.”
UNICEF supported Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) to study the phenomenon, focusing on separated children and their caretakers.
The survey – which covered 1,456 children aged 8 to 15 and their caretakers in Khon Kaen province in Isaan and in Phitsanulok province in the north – found that migrant parents live apart from their children for an average of eight years. However, the impact of this long absence, according to the study, was not immediately clear.
Less than a third of the children reported missing their parents, and there were few differences between children of non-migrant parents and of migrant parents with respect to indicators such as school performance, psychological problems and physical health.
Aree Jampaklay, research team leader and associate professor at Mahidol, noted the inconclusive findings were not entirely surprising.
“The well-being of children as the result of parental absence is potentially a long-term process that cannot be captured by our study, which is a snapshot,” Jampaklay said. “This may be particularly true with respect to emotional well-being, which is too sensitive to discover using a quantitative survey… One can look at many aspects of a child's life to examine whether the absence of parents matters. And our study only captures a part of it.”
UNICEF’s Claypole, emphasized that there is a definite cause for concern.
“If millions of children in Thailand were separated from their parents for years on end due to a natural disaster or an armed conflict, it would rightly be considered a national emergency, even if their basic needs were being met,” he said. “And yet this separation is the daily reality for more than two million poor children in rural Thailand.”
In villages like Baan Tabaek, the youngest of these separated children clearly suffer from poor nutrition and emotional problems.
“Children who live with grandparents are often more scared and fussy, but children who live with their parents are more confident,” said Runee, the teacher at the daycare center. “These children are so scared that the grandmothers have to stay with them at school during their first week, otherwise they cry until they are red in the face and they throw up.”
Across the village, several grandmothers said their daughters and daughters-in-law breastfeed their newborns for only a month or a week, then leave to work in the city.
Earning income for the family is often given as the main reason for internal migration, and indeed most parents do send money – two-thirds of households surveyed received money from migrant parents monthly, while 10 per cent received money more often than 12 times a year – although a few households (2.5 per cent) never received any money.
However, the amounts sent are not large. The average remittance was approximately 45,000 baht for the past year. One fourth of migrants sent less than 24,000 baht for the entire year, and a further half sent between 24,000 and 59,000 baht home. While welcome, these remittances have only a limited impact on alleviating household poverty.
The financial struggle is apparent at the daycare center, where Runee sees grandparents feeding the children water mixed with sweetened condensed milk or sweet artificial syrups, or water from boiled rice that is enhanced with sugar and salt – all lacking in nutritional value.
These children often weigh less, have pale, yellow skin and black teeth, she said.
In elementary school, teachers said children raised by their grandparents quickly adapt to rules and regulations to fit in with their peers, but by high school, delinquency and truancy surface.
“Children who are left behind by their parents have psychological problems,” said Ruangrawit Phayuhathamrongrat, principal at the secondary school of Plabplachai district, where the village of Baan Tabaek is located. “They have problems making friends or become friends with the wrong people… sometimes they befriend people who aren’t from this area, they become addicted to drugs or become pregnant. Some of these children drop out of school, or they don’t attend.”
Yet it is in the homes and lives of the children and their caretakers where the parents are most sorely missed.
Boon Homhuan raised her own five children and then went on to take care of 10 grandchildren who have been left behind by parents that migrated for work. The amount of money the parents send home is insufficient.
“Each day, I make two pots of rice, and then I watch them eat it all up, clean,” the 65-year-old grandmother said through betelnut-blackened teeth. “Some of the parents send money, some don’t. When I have to make food for them, sometimes there’s not enough, I can only mix in a little bit of chilies and some fish. Sometimes I have to split one egg among five children.”
Dressed in a traditional sarong, she sat in the space under her stilted wooden house, with several other grandmothers voicing similar woes. Raising the grandchildren has been such a challenge that two of Boon’s boys have been shipped off to a state-supported boarding school, and a step-grandson has been sent to a temple to live with Buddhist monks, while a 14-year-old granddaughter has run away from home and found work in Bangkok.
Many young children in Baan Tabaek cannot express their feelings about their absent parents, but with older children, the sadness is clear. Eleven-year-old Pu, who lives with her paternal grandparents, has not seen her mother since she was a child and cannot even recall her mother’s face.
“I miss my father. I see him about once a year. I never see my mother,” she said one morning at the Baan Tabaek elementary school. She lives with a cousin who has also been left in the grandparents’ care.
Asked if her parents call her on occasion or if she visits them, Pu responded simply and quietly: “No.”
To read the report on Children Living apart from Parents due to Internal Migration, visit http://www.ipsr.mahidol.ac.th/ipsr/Research/CLAIM/CLAIM-Report.htm