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Thailand/Myanmar: Child labor common among the displaced and stateless

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Every year the week of June 12 offers an opportunity to highlight the global fight against child labor, from which children are protected under Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a protection that is widely ignored. The International Labor Organization currently estimates the number of child laborers worldwide to be approximately 218 million, a number that has dropped over the last four years.

Poverty and adult unemployment or underemployment are two major factors fueling family decisions to send their children into factories and fields. Sometimes persecution forces families to flee and become refugees in another country or internally displaced within their homeland. Having lost their livelihoods, homes, and possessions, and separated from their families and friends, refugee and displaced families have to turn to their children for help in finding the means to survive. Children that should be under the care and protection of their parents or learning in school and at play must work long hours to earn whatever they can, no matter how dangerous or difficult the occupation. But at least these children have the hope of one day returning to their homes and enjoying the rights and privileges of citizens.

Another group of children robbed of their childhood and forced to work are the children of stateless individuals and groups. Refugees International's field visits to document conditions among stateless groups including Biharis (also known as Stranded Pakistanis and the Urdu-speaking Minority) in Bangladesh, undocumented street children in Malaysia, denationalized Kurds in Syria, and children of Burmese migrants in Thailand, frequently reveal violations of children's rights.

Bangladesh

When parents cannot afford to feed, clothe, or educate their children, youngsters must work to survive and to support themselves and their siblings. For many stateless people, who have no demonstrable legal tie to any government, employment in the regular economy is impossible. Even employment in the informal economy is difficult to find, may be poorly compensated and unpredictable due to discrimination. Some parents have come to rely on the income generated by their children to meet the family's most basic needs, including food, water, and shelter. Primary education becomes a luxury few can afford.

When civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan, the Biharis, who consider themselves Pakistani, sided with West Pakistan. In 1971, however, East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh. Biharis were left behind and were unwelcome in both countries. Today, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Biharis live in approximately 70 severely overcrowded urban camps in 13 regions across the country.

Mr. M., who grew up as a stateless boy in a Bihari camp, recently addressed the Congressional Human Rights Caucus staff about his experience. "About 95 percent of children are bound to work for survival," stated Mr. M. "There is no alternative."

In one Bihari camp, RI met an 11-year-old boy who works from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day in front of a huge kettle of hot oil, frying food. Clearly terrified at our arrival, the child did not speak, but the young man's boss rushed in to explain that he paid the boy 20 taka (about 29 cents) per day for his help. And then the boss added, "This boy doesn't go to school due to poverty."

In another camp where children can access education, one teacher, who has not been paid since September told RI, "In this environment, learning is a lot of work for the students. There is no time to get wiser. Children work after school for money by doing handicrafts and jewelry. At home they live like animals. Their families cook, eat, work, and sleep in the same room."

Thailand

In most countries infants are registered at birth. When the child of a Burmese asylum seeker or migrant worker is born in a Thai hospital, the birth record is removed. Minority families who flee arbitrary arrest, forced labor, rape, and killing by the Burmese military arrive at the border of Thailand with hopes of leading a life free of human rights abuse. Thailand's narrow definition of who qualifies to be considered a refugee prevents many who have fled Burma from obtaining recognition and assistance as refugees. Because Thai law does not recognize the children of Burmese as citizens or legal residents, they are greatly at risk of hazardous or exploitive labor conditions, sexual and other abuse and denial of education, health care, and the right to a nationality. The Burmese government disavows its responsibility towards Burmese families and refuses to give citizenship to any children of Burmese born in Thailand for reasons including: the children do not have birth certificates; the parents have left Burma illegally; and the parents themselves were never provided with proper citizenship papers. Neither recognized by the Burmese government nor the Thai government, the children are stateless and their lives in limbo.

One stateless child told RI, "I don't want to pick chilies and onions in the plantation. I want to go to school. I want to wear a school uniform proudly and learn the materials in a proper classroom like them [referring to the Thai students]." When some children are permitted to attend Thai schools, they do not attain an official degree or certificate permitting the young person to pursue further education or to find a job legally. The U.S. State Department has reported that child labor in Thailand is a huge problem. Child domestic workers are numerous and many have been raped or abused by their employers. Some stateless children and youth are victims of trafficking and are sold into slavery. A thirteen-year-old girl who ran away from her owner in Bangkok to Mae Sot, reported, "I was sold for less than 800 baht (about $20) to work as a housemaid in Bangkok. I have to get up before five to start preparing for the shop. She [her owner] made me eat 5-10 chilies to wake me up. I don't get to sleep until I cleaned up everything (which she usually finishes around 11 p.m. or midnight). I ran away because they were going to sell me to work in sex trade."

Malaysia

Unregistered children are more easily taken advantage of by employers, and abuse can easily go undetected. They are also more vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking for illegal activities.

Sabah in eastern Malaysia is home to generations of irregular migrants of Filipino and Indonesian descent whose children are often undocumented and therefore are at risk of being stateless. Undocumented children in Sabah are unable to go to government schools. They can access private schools but the cost is often too high for the families to pay. There are some church and community organizations in Sabah that offer private education at a reduced cost. If the children are not able to go to school, then they often begin working at restaurants or in markets at a much younger age.

Irregular migrants in Malaysia are targets for arrest and deportation. In Sabah, raids are conducted in housing areas where the migrants live and in markets and public areas where many work. The children whose parents have been deported and who have no other family in Sabah end up living and working on the street at a very young age, often in fish markets. Children working at the fish markets are wary of outsiders and are under constant threat of raids by police. In 2006, the police arrested around 160-170 street children who were placed in detention. Those with family contacts were eventually released, but there is no information on the whereabouts of the others.

Zugoh, a 12-year-old boy of Filipino descent, works through the night at a fish market in Kota Kinabalu. He pushes a heavy wooden cart hoping that customers will allow him to transport their purchases to their car. Zugoh is paid around 1 MYR, or 30 cents, by each customer. Zugoh does not have a father. He has a mother, but he does not stay with her. Zugoh told RI that he sleeps somewhere on the street near the fish market. He does not go to school, and he has no identity documents.

The street children who do not have birth certificates and who have no other guardian or family in Sabah are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, these children are at risk of being stateless if they have no way of tracing their heritage back to their parents' country of origin and no government will recognize them as nationals.

Syria

Numbering about 300,000, denationalized Kurds in Syria are in a unique situation in relation to the larger Kurdish population. Syria's Kurds became stateless when a census was conducted in 1962 in the Hassakeh governorate under Decree No. 93. The results of this census continue to cause great suffering.

Individuals have irregular access to education, health care, livelihoods, travel, property ownership, judicial and political systems, and registration of businesses, marriage, and children. They cannot vote or run for public office. One young woman told Refugees International, "When I was young, I was not sensitive to my status. Now I know it will affect my education, my job, and my marriage."

But labor issues extend into childhood. One young man explained how he had won first place in a sports competition in the Hassakeh governorate. The only way he could do this was by faking his identity by borrowing the name of a Syrian national.

The boy's primary interest is in sports, and he would like to pursue this professionally. However, because of his stateless status, this is virtually impossible and he feels like giving up. Undocumented children are normally not allowed to finish school and get a diploma. Among people he knows, even those who finished high school or went as far as college were not able to get a job. So, he says he feels he should just go ahead and start hard labor or agriculture or work on the carts in street to make a living.

"We want to be children," the stateless boy explained to the interviewer. "We want to enjoy our childhood. I want to study instead of going in the street and selling things. They want us to lose hope."

Governments, non-governmental organizations, and the public need to put an end to the conditions that prevent stateless children from experiencing childhood and life as international agreements so clearly indicate they have the right to do. In honor of the 2007 World Day Against Child Labor, Refugees International urges all governments to uphold child rights, including that of identity and nationality, and to work to end child labor among displaced and stateless children around the globe.

Maureen Lynch is the Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives for Refugees International.