Being a child migrant during COVID-19

Why migrant children and their families are among the most vulnerable in the world during the pandemic
A young girl sits with a silver bowl in her hands looking off to the distance

Mamaway clenches her eyes tight, buries her head in her knees and imagines she is back home again:

Small and fragile, she can almost feel the dewy air in her lungs—a gift from the deep green trees that surrounded her very first home. She brushes her fingers against the ground beneath her and remembers the fertile soil, crumbling it into small balls within her hands. She leans back and hears the gentle breeze whistle off the bamboo stalks that walled her home. There is just the wind, and the birds and her. Here, she was safe. Here, she was secure.

Her eyes jolt open from her daydream at the sound of her little brother crying out in hunger.  He hasn’t eaten all day, and neither has she. She is afraid and unsure. She wishes she could go back to that humble, peaceful home that she keeps tucked away in the back of her mind.

Young girl wearing a yellow shirt and pink shorts collects firewood below a bamboo home

Mamaway collecting firewood.

Mamaway is a 10-year-old migrant living in Thailand. For as long as she can remember, her family has been running.

Running from the violence that surrounds the home her imagination whisks her off to every night.

Running from the violent tension that puts her and her family in danger.

Running from the oppression that has forced her family to uproot and find temporary safety in a new country.

It’s been five years since Mamaway’s parents made the decision to move to Thailand in search of peace. Though here in their new home there is some peace, there is no freedom. As migrants, Mamaway’s family’s ability to travel is limited. They have very poor access to the government’s welfare benefits like education and healthcare. And perhaps worst of all, in order for this family of nine to survive, each family member has to work—even young Mamaway.

That is, until COVID-19 flipped the script.

Young girl in a yellow shirt crouches to wash vegetables outside.

For food, Mamaway has to find vegetables by the local pond.

When quarantine restrictions were announced, daily labour jobs that were once available for Mamaway’s family were abruptly shut down. Mamaway’s family suddenly had no income. And as migrants, they couldn’t travel to find work. They weren’t even eligible to receive government crisis relief.

This is the reality for thousands of migrant families in Thailand, just like Mamaway’s.

Thousands of families like hers have been thrust into the deep end of poverty because of COVID-19, without the additional supports available to them that the average citizen has.

Here’s a snapshot to give a clearer picture of the stark realities:

• 700,000 migrant workers have lost their jobs since the lockdown started in late March. That’s roughly equivalent to the total population of New Brunswick. Many of these migrants work in the tourism, service and construction industries, and have incredibly limited access to government aid in Thailand.

• 32% of migrants who remain employed report harassment and abuses in the workplace like the inability to refuse work during lockdown, being pushed to take unpaid leave, having their personal documents kept by their employer, being threatened to have their contracts terminated and more. Most of these migrants were women.

• Many migrant workers have very limited access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Many don’t seek medical attention because of the costs involved, and fear of what will happen when engaging with authorities, like deportation for those in irregular status. Though on paper, migrants have the same right to access social security as Thai citizens, things like health care and paid sick leave, the reality is that many are excluded. This includes migrants in domestic work, agriculture and fishing, regular workers whose employers haven’t enrolled them in the social security system and undocumented migrant workers.

*All statistics sourced from the International Labour Association

Mimi’s Story

Mimi sits on the floor of her home taking glances out the door as her three children run around outside with their friends. A jolt of anxiety spreads from her stomach to her throat. She is terrified. The lines on her face tell a story of the trouble she has seen, and the trouble she anticipates.

She looks behind her and sees an empty home, a bittersweet reminder that she is alone. Her eyes wander down to her dusty feet, grounded on the bamboo planks. She thinks about her husband. She wonders if he’s afraid too, quarantined in the leprosy colony.

A woman wearing a blue shirt crouches in her home with a knife cutting food to eat. She's in a bamboo home.

Mimi in her home.

When her eyes catch glimpses of her young children playing outside, a million questions flood through her mind. Will my children get infected playing out there with other kids? Will I ever find work in the fields to provide for them? And if I do, will they be safe here alone?

As a migrant family, Mimi’s worries are exponentially worsened. Though they moved here many years ago, they don’t have the same securities as Thai citizens. Their stability is even more fragile. As a field labourer, jobs for Mimi are nearly impossible to find.

And with her husband battling leprosy, she is the only hope of providing for her family. When her kids come inside after playing with their friends, she feels guilt wash over her. She has only enough food for tonight. Tomorrow they may not eat all.

Eggs, Rice and the Body of Christ

Compassion’s church partners around the world are not only prepared, but passionate about providing for the desperate needs of migrant families in their communities. This is true of the local church in Thailand, as they seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet for families like Mamaway’s and Mimi’s. The local church is committed to doing the real, hard work inspired by the words of Paul in Ephesians:

“So then, you are no longer stranger and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

-Ephesians 2:17-20

A part of feeling like a “fellow citizen” is having the same opportunities that others do. And that’s exactly what the local church in Thailand is leaning into.

Young girl in red shirt smiles with a big bag of rice and some other food in front of her.

Mamaway with the food delivered by her local Compassion centre.

“We want to make sure that there are no children and families left behind, especially migrant children and their families. They don’t have any other resources,” says Patramai, a local church staff.

For especially vulnerable migrant families like Mimi’s and Mamaway’s, the local church is working in overdrive during this pandemic to:

  • regularly deliver food parcels including things like rice, canned fish, cooking oil, eggs, dried foods and more, with a budget of CAD $42 per family.
  • cover costs for travel expenses, like for Mimi’s husband to travel back and forth from medical appointments
  • provide essential household sanitation supplies and hygiene supplies to keep families healthy
  • make sure no family feels alone by administering regular socially distant visits, prayer times and times of encouragement from church staff and local pastors

And though the local church in Thailand has been a steady presence for migrant families during the pandemic, they have been walking with these families long before, too.

Little boy holds an egg in each hand and smiles big

Mimi’s youngest son with the eggs delivered from their local Compassion centre. A delicious meal for tonight!

“The project has always helped us with transporting my children to school, school uniforms, storage to keep my children’s clothes and mattresses,” says Mamaway’s mom, Nawkey.

“Without the project, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to school, I wouldn’t have support for nutrition and the encouragement that keeps me joyful,” says Mamaway.

As for Mimi, her kids have found a place of safety, comfort and provision at their Compassion centre, even amidst their father’s battle with leprosy.

“My daughter says that when COVID-19 is gone, the first thing she wants to do is to go back to school. She says she misses going to the project. She misses all of you and she misses playing games with her friends and dancing to the songs together,” says Mimi.

Family of 6 smiles together in front of their food delivery

It’s through God’s grace and the generosity of the Body of Christ around the world that our local church partners in Thailand and beyond can allow migrant families to be seen, cared for and loved without boundaries. And though we have seen such freedom and joy come from walking with these families before and during COVID-19, we also know there are still hundreds of thousands of other migrant families who need desperate help in these times.


Will you help provide urgently needed practical support to migrant families who are particularly vulnerable during COVID-19?

Yes, I want to give today!