Friday, September 22, 2017

The untold story of children left behind by migrant parents

By Frederick Howard

Bunloeum and Phanet eat at home with their grandmother Souy.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Bona Khoy

Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, September 2017 – It’s an overcast morning in this north-western province, with the sky consumed by a dark grey cloud.

Pradak School is located in rural Siem Reap. Its facilities are basic; with one classroom being no more than an open-sided barn containing desks and a whiteboard. The surrounding land has no playground for the children and the site lacks suitable toilet facilities and running water.


Six-year-old Bunloeum attends school in the morning. He seems distracted and unmotivated in the classroom.

In the afternoon, his seven-year-old brother Phanet attends the same school. He also displays similar tendencies to his younger brother and lacks confidence.

When he is asked to read aloud by his teacher he hides his face and begins to cry.

The boys’ parents migrated to Thailand in search of work four years ago and they have only seen their children once since. The effect a situation like this can have on the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of a child is massive.

Bunloeum and Phanet live with their grandmother Souy, 65. Their home is a small wooden house built on stilts which has been fortified with beer boxes and netting. However, a villager has allowed them to move into the bottom floor of her concrete home which is more suitable.

At home, the two children remain very close to Souy. They are quiet, reserved and they speak, only, through their grandmother.

“When their parents were present, the children were happy,” said Souy.

“They were in good spirits, their father would help them with their schooling and they got ill far less often,” she added.

The boys’ parents fell into financial difficulty, forcing them to make the move to Thailand. They used to have a small rice field, which didn’t yield a sufficient crop, but it was enough to sustain the family.

After borrowing money, they found themselves unable to pay it back. They were forced to hand over the rice field as collateral. With their primary source of food and only source of income gone, they had to find regular employment elsewhere.

Migrating to Thailand seemed an attractive option. However, low wages, the higher cost of living in Thailand and repayments towards their outstanding loan means the remittance sent back to Cambodia is inadequate.

This has forced Souy to engage in casual labour. She works across the street at a pillow factory to boost the family’s income.

Although this work allows Souy to put food on the table, it leaves the boys without constant supervision and at 65, she finds the work exhausting.

Souy’s own health, along with the boys’, is a serious concern to her. When she has fallen ill in the past, other villagers have been able to help with transport to the health centre, but caring for the children and accommodating medical bills is another story.

“Our standard of living hasn’t improved. The children aren’t eating better; their health is being impacted upon by their parents’ absence. I can’t care for them as well as their parents can.”

In Siem Reap, over 7 per cent of the province’s population are known to have migrated and about 5 per cent are known to have migrated internationally, according to the 2014 Commune Database.

A recent UNICEF-commissioned report on the Impact of Migration on Children in Cambodia found it is common that children whose parents migrate often get left with ageing grandparents.

The average age of a caretaking grandparent surveyed by the study was 62.4 years and most of these described themselves as feeling overburdened or unable to care for the children.

The report shows that services provided to vulnerable families affected by migration are scarce or non-existent. Through interviews related to the study – with commune council members and village chiefs – it became evident that both migration and associated social issues that arise in the community are not a priority for local authorities.

There are no special public services for families at any stage in the migration process. The responsibilities of local government bodies are limited; with reduced capacity and poor awareness of commune councils to address issues related to migration, including care for children left behind.

The study calls for commitment and action at national and sub-national levels to ensure public services are accessible for those who need them direly.

For vulnerable people such as Bunloeum, Phanet and Souy, it is vital that they are supported through local mechanisms so they can access free healthcare, subsidies for education and nutrition support for children using commune funds.

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