Reaching out to migrant communities
Protecting the vulnerable in a time of crisis
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, UNICEF and USAID have been working with NGO partners to deliver vital information to the migrant community on how to protect themselves and their children as well as providing much-needed support
The five people entering the small studio apartment on a sunny afternoon in June seem to know that they have to sit apart and maintain a safe distance from each other at all times. They don’t, however, have face masks. Once they are seated, these are handed out so that the workshop on COVID-19 can begin.
The five participants are migrant workers from Myanmar who live in rented accommodation near their seafood factory in Samut Sakhon province. Unlike many of their peers, they were unable to return home before the lockdown measures rolled out by the Thai government came into effect and had to learn how to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic while living in a small space a long way from home.
During the workshop delivered in the Myanmar language, supported by UNICEF Thailand and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and organized by Raks Thai Foundation (RTF), they learn that, apart from always wearing a mask, they need to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap, stay at least one metre apart from everyone else and sneeze into their elbow instead of their hands. These simple measures could help reduce the possibility of spreading the virus.
To reach everyone in these communities in Samut Sakhon, the workshops are held in the Myanmar language because the majority of about 300,000 migrant workers in the seafood factories are from Myanmar. Most of them live with their families and friends and stick to their own community, so their Thai language skills only allow them to communicate in certain situations, such as at the market.
After the workshop, participant Pyone Cho stressed that everybody should strictly observe the one-metre physical distancing.
“So you won’t get infected or spread the virus [in case you’re already infected] to others,” he said in the Myanmar language to RTF Assistant Field Officer Than Tun, who led and interpreted during the workshop, one of many organized by RTF for migrant workers.
The 39-year-old is employed by a nearby seafood factory to cut and process seafood. He shares a cramped room in the factory with his wife. Since lockdown, thousands of Myanmar migrant workers have been confined to their crowded rented spaces. Few have more than four square metres for sleeping, eating and cooking and much of that is shared.
Than Tun, a Myanmar national himself, holds these workshops daily to educate fellow migrant workers about how to stay safe and healthy. Than Tun had already been organizing similar awareness-raising sessions to provide migrant workers with knowledge about TB, HIV and AIDS, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, he shifted the focus of these sessions, conducting them to a much smaller audience to make sure that social distancing measures are observed.
Now, no more than five people are allowed to participate at a time. Following a recent workshop, participants left with a set of face masks, disinfection gel and three bars of soap – luxury items for the workers who are struggling to make ends meet.
In addition to these awareness sessions, information is being disseminated to employees in the form of leaflets and videos, translated from Thai into the Myanmar language by RTF and distributed to the workers by their employers.
Since April, UNICEF and USAID have been sharing knowledge on COVID-19 in migrant communities’ native languages and providing prevention facilities at the places they work through an extensive network of partner NGOs. In addition to RTF, these include World Vision Foundation of Thailand working in nine provinces; One Sky Foundation working with Myanmar migrants in Kanchanaburi; The Life Skill Development Foundation working with Myanmar, Tai Yai and stateless people in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son; and Friends International Thailand working with Cambodian migrant workers in Sa Kaew.
These NGOs know that it’s never easy for migrants to access hygiene and health information and resources far away from home, especially given that they belong to a marginalized group.
“Before this [workshop], I felt worried and scared from what I heard on the news. I now understand more about the [COVID-19] situation and how to prevent it, so I am much more relieved. I will inform my three children, and when my husband comes back from the sea, I will inform him too,” said Tem Ma We, who attended a COVID-19 prevention workshop organized by World Vision Foundation of Thailand in Ranong, where few in the migrant community speak Thai. The organization has also built hand-washing stations for more than 30 communities never before equipped with one.
Another NGO, Help Without Frontiers, provides COVID-19 prevention training to teachers at migrant learning centres in Tak province. During the COVID-19 crisis, they widened their outreach, educating not only children, but also families on how to stay safe from COVID-19.
“The families that I meet, some of them don’t have jobs. Their children are not in school. So when the parents were stressed, they would sometimes hit the children. I have to tell them to be compassionate. I explain to them that everyone is affected and we have to support each other. So [my work with families] is not just about COVID-19 information,” said Ye Thaw, a volunteer for migrant health in Ranong trained by World Vision Foundation of Thailand.
As of June, the NGOs’ combined efforts reached 47,161 people in these migrant communities, in which almost 30 per cent are children. The projects are expected to end in September, by which time it is expected that the migrant workers will have the knowledge and access to facilities they need to keep their families safe and healthy.
Saknarong Prayoungsak, field officer at the RTF Samut Sakhon office, is feeling more confident about migrant workers’ access to health information because he believes in his foundation’s wide outreach, knowing that Myanmar migrants can also access videos and information directly from their Ministry of Health via social media.
He’s more worried about the migrants’ quality of life now that they are having to survive on a much lower income. While Thais and migrant workers alike have been economically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, none of these migrant workers are eligible for the government’s cash handout or any other relief plan. A few of them have received a relief kit, but that’s it.
“It’s [more] manageable for Thai workers if they become infected [with COVID-19]. But how will these Myanmar workers manage to isolate themselves if they are suspected of having the virus?” asked Saknarong. In a situation like this, protecting the most vulnerable communities such as migrants becomes even more urgent.
Thin Thin Khaing is a worker who has to juggle taking care of her toddler son and working at a nearby seafood factory. Her family’s income of about 7,000 baht was cut to around 5,000 baht due to the lower production rate.
“There’s a lot to spend on,” she said about her growing expenses, just about managing to smile.
Like other workers, Thin Thin Khaing is confident that she and her family now know how to cope with COVID-19. But like many others, she’s worried about how she will be able to cope with the reduced income and continue to pay fixed expenses if the pandemic continues. All share the same hope: that the pandemic will soon be over and business can return to normal.