Asia and the Pacific

COMTEX Newswire/InterPress Service
11 February 1997

Indochina's Street Children

BANGKOK -- Teary-eyed and grimy faced, they tap on car windows on busy streets in the Thai capital begging for money; some wait in fear in darkened rooms in Bangkok brothels; others work by day or night in factories at border areas.

Some have been smuggled across borders by unscrupulous dealers in the child sex trade, others were brought by their parents, and still others came on their own, hopeful that fast developing Thailand might have more to offer than the poverty they left behind.

Invariably, these unskilled, uneducated children are subjected to abuse and exploitation, their plight compounded by their illegal status and inability to speak Thai. As such, they are unable to seek the recourse of laws that often fail to protect Thai children.

Centrally located in Southeast Asia, with porous borders linking the impoverished Indo-China region, Thailand has long been a hub for migrant labor -- legal and illegal -- from southern China, Burma and Cambodia.

More recently however, the faces have become younger, with unofficial estimates putting the number of illegal workers under the age of 15 at close to 200,000 -- a conservative figure, says Taneeya Runcharoen, associate coordinator of the Bangkok-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Child Workers in Asia.

Child rights campaigners say that minimum wage increases have seen the Thai industry increasingly turn to cheap foreign labor in a bid to remain competitive -- and those most easily exploited are children without education or documentation.

Government, under pressure from the private sector, sanctions the import of foreign, skilled labor from its Indo-China neighbors. This policy, say rights activists, not only fails to curb child labor, but exacerbates the problem in that children accompanying their parents invariably are also put to work.

According to the interior ministry, there are 740,000 foreign workers employed in Thailand under its import labor scheme with Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

A research study carried out by Thailand's Mahidol University estimates that as a direct result of the scheme, 185,000 children under 15 years old are involved in one form or another of illegal work activity.

The situation has gained the government's attention and in collaboration with seven NGOs and Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, the interior ministry has set up a working group to look into the issue of abuses against foreign children.

Initial findings show most of the children come from southern China, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

"From our interviews with some of them, they said that they had hoped to continue staying in Thailand with their families because the situation back home, both economically and, in some cases like Burma, politically, are unsure," says Taneeya.

The children can be put into three groups.

"The first group are those who came with their parents. The second group are children who came with friends or relatives of similar ages in search of jobs; and the last group are those who were cheated by agents and were taken from their villages without knowing what they were going to find here," says Taneeya.

The trend is that the foreign children are gradually replacing Thai child workers in the agricultural and industrial sectors. They are also swelling the number of street children that daily beg for money on Bangkok streets. The welfare department says that at least 300 foreign children roam the capital.

This does not mean that Thai children, too, are not exploited, observes Kempon Wirunrapan, director of the NGO Foundation for Children's Development.

"Although Thai child workers generally know more about the situation before they start working, it does not change the behavior of some employers," she says.

Child rights activists say that while the issue needs to be better addressed at the national level, the problem is really a regional one -- driven by poverty and economic disparities.

Moreover, child labor -- foreign-based or domestic -- must be seen as an issue of abuse of human rights, and so must not be dealt with in the same manner as illegal migrant labor.

"We would like the issue of child rights to be put on the ASEAN agenda," says Taneeya.

ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) groups Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam that cooperate at the governmental level. Burma, Laos and Cambodia are also bidding to become members.


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