Tackling school dropouts to secure a better future for refugee children in Thailand

Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to far-reaching consequences to most aspects of life around the world. In addition to the public health emergency, the pandemic’s associated restrictions caused a major education crisis which continues to reverberate, even as lockdowns are lifted and life returns to ‘normal’.

The crisis also exacerbated the inequality in education. Globally, refugee children, who already faced interrupted schooling as a result of displacement, suffered greater setbacks to their education in addition to encountering language barriers. Addressing this challenge was a priority for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners in Thailand during the pandemic.

UNHCR implemented a cash allowance scheme, covering fees for internet connectivity to ensure that remote learning reaches all registered refugee children. Still, the pandemic took a toll on the well-being and psychosocial health of children. Beyond learning, schools traditionally offer a space for socio-emotional support provided by teachers and classmates.

“I miss[ed] going to school,” says Aisha, a nine-year-old living in Bangkok. “I miss[ed] having classmates and making new friends.”

Aisha arrived with her family from Pakistan six years ago. As part of Thailand’s “Education for All” policy, Aisha has been entitled to enroll in school, regardless of her nationality and legal status. This allows refugee children in urban areas, like Aisha, to benefit from up to 15 years of free education.

Like many children learning a second language, Aisha initially found it challenging to read and write in Thai. Her mother, Aamira, therefore registered her in a six-month Thai Intensive Learning Programme provided by UNHCR and Good Shepherd Sisters School (GSS).

“I studied Thai, Cultural Studies, and English,” describes Aisha. “I learned how to count and some basic vocabulary like fruits, vegetables, and colours in Thai. More importantly, the programme taught me the Thai alphabet. Now, I can even help my little brother, Malik, with his homework in Thai.”

“I miss[ed] going to school”

In 2021, UNHCR observed that the online learning necessitated by the pandemic impacted students’ attendance. Most young learners were simply unable to focus on the lessons independently, without the help of a parent or caregiver. UNHCR accordingly expanded the Thai Intensive Learning Programme so that adults could help their children with schoolwork. The Thai Intensive Programme has effectively facilitated the integration of refugee children into Thai Formal Education with a 70 percent success rate.

Globally, UNHCR estimates that 48 percent of all refugee children remain out of school. In Thailand, despite school closures in 2021 and the implementation of stricter COVID-19 measures, UNHCR registered a 10 percent increase in registered child refugees in formal education. This achievement has been possible thanks to targeted strategies to support refugee children’s transition to formal education in Thailand and to mitigate the risk of school dropouts during the time of online learning.

“In 2021, UNHCR assisted 55 percent of the children aged 6 to 17 to receive formal education in Thai public schools,” explains Yodtad Panswad, a Senior Programme Associate with UNHCR in Thailand.

“However, supporting enrolment for the remaining children in this type of education remains a challenge. Based on discussions with parents, language barriers are often cited as one of the main reasons for not sending children to Thai public schools, as most of these schools require children to speak and write fluent Thai. The Thai language classes at the Good Shepherd Sisters School (GSS), funded by UNHCR and implemented by the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees COERR, equip children with the required skills to integrate into Thai public schools, and attracted the attention of many parents.”

“I am sure if he can express his full potential, he will make a positive difference in the world.”

Overcoming the language barrier is not the only challenge: some refugee children, including those with disabilities, need more support.

Malik, Aisha’s brother, has a hearing impairment. Up until last year, he had not uttered a word. With the support of UNHCR, he was referred to the TzuChi Foundation, which supports urban refugees with outpatient assistance. There, he received a hearing aid, and finally, after six years, his mother heard him call out to her for the first time.

“I have no words to describe the joy when I could talk to him for the first time,” she says with tears of joy in her eyes. “Still, the medical support is only the first step. Malik requires more care and support in his studies.”

In mid-May 2022, public schools in Thailand re-opened their doors for in-person classes. UNHCR is supporting the return to school by distributing transport allowances to families. However, this new transition requires, once again, children to re-adjust to the ‘new normal’.

“Our work does not stop after the children enrolled and stayed for a year in formal education,” explains Yodtad Panswad. “Our scope of work aims at maintaining the children’s enrolment rate through secondary school. In 2022, our team will monitor and assess the educational needs of children in a constantly evolving environment. If funding allows, we will organize weekly tutoring for children who require additional assistance.”

Despite only using a hearing aid for a year and never having attended school while wearing one, Malik’s mother is hopeful for his future. Malik, like Aisha, has returned to school.

“He does not need constant help, but a mindful and sensitive approach provided with tutoring sessions would surely help him develop his talent and skills. He has such a gentle heart,” observes Aamira. “I am sure if he can express his full potential, he will make a positive difference in the world.”