Teaching Burmese migrants here in Thailand, I hear of their stories, their struggles and their aspirations: their predicament often dominates my thoughts. While working with a migrant population is a new experience for me, migration itself is woven into my heritage. Aotearoa/New Zealand, where I grew up, is a country founded on migration. My ancestors predominantly came from Ireland, including one Edward Keating who migrated from County Tipperary in the 1870s to Greymouth in the South Island. Escaping from poverty and unrest in Ireland, it is likely he sought a better life in the far away “land of the long white cloud”. Aside from the prevalent British ancestry in New Zealand, my childhood and adolescence was shared with others who were (either themselves or their parents or grandparents) from an assortment of countries including Denmark, Samoa, USA, China and Malaysia. As an adult, I have temporarily migrated to several new countries chasing new opportunities and different experiences.
Today, there are increasing numbers of us living worldwide. The UNs latest figures (2017) estimate that 258 million people, including almost 26 million refugees, are living in a different country to which they were born in*. The students that I work with here are economic migrants, having migrated from Myanmar to Thailand in the pursuit of better opportunities. While life in Thailand has its challenges for migrants, there are better paid jobs, reliable electricity and internet – luxuries which can’t always be found in Myanmar.
In their new homelands, migrants are often challenged with language, cultural differences, separation from friends and family, obtaining valid visas and work permits (which can be expensive and difficult), discrimination, restrictions on accessing social services and gaining recognition of their educational qualifications. These issues, often combined with desperation to improve their well-being, mean migrants frequently end up doing unskilled or poorly paid jobs that locals won’t do. And this seems to go in tandem with physical, emotional and economic exploitation of migrant workers. Here in Ranong, many migrants work in the fishing industry (see my blog about this), as well as in charcoal factories and prostitution.
It’s like a cloak has been lifted from my eyes. Once some of these issues are brought to my attention, I realise they are being duplicated worldwide. An article on the UK’s Modern Slavery Act in IEMAs Transform** magazine enlightens me of African and Filipino migrants being trafficked and exploited in the Scottish and Irish fishing industries, which is corroborated with reports I find online; in a Tui Motu magazine I learn about exploitation of migrant workers in the construction, dairy, horticulture and hospitality industries in New Zealand (referring to a recent report on worker exploitation, found here); and Louise Gray’s book The Ethical Carnivore highlights the presence of many highly qualified migrants working in abattoirs in the UK.
A ship building yard in Ranong, where many migrants work
As I hear more people’s stories, I start to realise the extent of pain that migrants sometimes bear, both from escaping bad situations and living in less than ideal realities. However, I also see a great deal of faith and hope, the building blocks of dreams. With migration numbers so high throughout the world, it is crucial we are aware of the plight of migrants, even if we have no direct connections with them ourselves. We must recognise that there is a face and a story behind each of the 258 million migrants in the world today. Faces that have dreams. Faces who want to have a good life, just like you or I.
Local Burmese children playing in the street where I live
*Note that refugees are defined differently to migrants, a refugee being someone “has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence”, whereas a migrant may move to seek work or higher living standards.
**IEMA is the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. I am a Practitioner member of IEMA.