On the basis of their presentations at the Asia-Pacific Childhoods Conference in Singapore last year, Fred Bemak and Rita Chi-Ying Chung, both counselor educators at George Mason University in Virginia, were invited to take part in a mental health exploratory mission to Myanmar recently.

The United Kingdom division of Save the Children (www.savethechildren.org), a child-focused international nongovernmental organization, has established programs to work in the communities of Myanmar to improve the quality of life among the nation’s children and families. The organization’s programs address child protection, economic opportunities, education, nutrition, HIV/AIDS and health.

In Myanmar, it has become relatively common practice for young Burmese women and girls to be lured to Thailand with promises of employment as waitresses, factory workers or domestic servants, Bemak says. Because of extreme poverty, many families in Myanmar encourage their children to accept the jobs so they can send money back home. Children as young as 8 leave their families and villages, sometimes all alone, to make the illegal journey across the border into Thailand.

Once there, the girls are often forced into prostitution or held captive, working and living in the squalor of sweatshops. Their “employers” use threats, abuse, debt and bondage to control the children and force them to work in deplorable conditions. Many times factory owners push children to work 12 to 16 hours a day. In some circumstances, the children are drugged with amphetamines and forced to work even longer hours without sleep.

Officials with Save the Children asked Bemak and Chung to go to Myanmar and interview village elders, families and children in hopes of determining answers to the following questions.

  • Why are so many Burmese children leaving home and migrating across the border into Thailand?
  • What are the issues within the families prior to migration?
  • What does the migration process entail and what challenges do these children face en route?
  • What measures can be taken to ensure the safety of the children after they are in Thailand?
  • How can those who return to Myanmar be helped to integrate back into their communities in a healthier way?

The couple, both members of the American Counseling Association, agreed to take a three-week expedition to Myanmar and report back with their findings, including suggestions and recommendations pertaining to the mental health and well-being of the migrating children. What the counselors found was a society where many young women have been traumatized.

Driven by family loyalty

“We were sent to help (Save the Children) understand the issues around this migration and what is going on psychologically and sociologically with the families, communities and the children themselves,” says Bemak, noting that they also met with state health officials. Save the Children staff led Bemak and Chung, along with translators and a government monitor, through the Mon and Kayin states of Myanmar. Several of the villagers had never previously seen a foreigner.

“Most of the children didn’t have any education, they weren’t in school and many had been working from the age of 3,” Bemak says. “For example, they would help building roads. The children would carry rocks down from the mountains. The whole family would be involved in this and earn a few cents every day, but that money was critical for the family to eat. The 20 cents the 3-year-old earned contributed greatly to the family having enough rice to maintain and survive.” The poverty level and need is so profound in Myanmar, he says, that communities have romanticized the idea of migration.

“There is tremendous loyalty to the family,” he continues. “Children say, ‘My family is hungry, and I can go (work in Thailand) and help feed them.’ So they migrate and tolerate some of the abuse and some of the exploitation to help their family.”

No accurate statistics are available on how many Burmese children have left for Thailand, but Chung and Bemak learned informally through their meetings that roughly one child out of every two will migrate for work. Because the migration is so widespread, the United Nations, Save the Children and other child advocacy agencies have determined that it cannot be effectively stopped. The allure of earning up to 10 times the typical Burmese salary is too great. The villagers believe (and in some cases it’s true) that their children will be able to support the entire family with the money they earn in Thailand. In turn, the families become dependent on the child and actually encourage children to migrate.

“What’s happening is entire villages are sanctioning the migrations over the border,” Bemak explains. “There is an acceptance of the migration, so we are looking at how can we create a safe migration for the children.” He adds that agencies are working with the Burmese to ensure the children’s safe passage across the border, help them find legitimate employment while there and also provide them with support networks if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. Additionally, Bemak and Chung want to address the needs of returnees, whether they escaped forced labor in Thailand, were deported back to their villages or came back of their own free will.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

“For generations, everyone has been accepting this migration, and nobody talks about what really happens because it’s too painful,” Bemak says. “Thailand has an actively rampant sex trade, so there is tremendous opportunity to earn money in commercial sex work. What we found in the villages with elders and parents was interesting. There was a mentality of don’t ask, don’t tell. Nobody is talking about the commercial sex work, the exploitation of the children, the sexual and physical abuse of the children or the pain and trauma that the children went through.”

Initially, he says, the villagers would deny that anything bad had happened to the children and insist that there was no need for concern. Eventually, however, they would admit that sexual abuse and exploitation were problems. Some villages estimated that up to 80 percent of the children had suffered some form of abuse.

“We talked with some of the returnees, and they are extremely traumatized,” Bemak says. “They sit in their room, won’t come out or socialize. The returnees just aren’t functional. I think they have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and they are highly depressed, but nobody knows how to handle them or talk to them. In fact, Rita and I were the first people many of them ever spoke with about some of the awful things that had happened to them.”

While visiting one village, Bemak and Chung were invited to sit with some of the elders at a banquet. They dined in an open-air hut, sitting on the ground and eating fresh fish, rice and vegetables. Several young girls — returnees from Thailand — stood around the tables, fanning the adults to keep insects away and to provide a breeze. Bemak felt awkward about the situation, so he began speaking to the girls with the help of the translator. After the meal, he asked if he could stay and talk in more depth with three of the girls in particular.

“I pulled them to the side, and they were shocked that anyone had noticed them, but they just looked like and sounded like they were quite depressed and upset,” he says. “They had all three returned in the past year from Thailand. I told them they didn’t have to describe the details of what happened, but it seemed like all three of them were very pained by it and hurting. Tears started coming and they nodded their heads. We started a whole impromptu counseling intervention session. They were hungry for that, almost desperate to have someone to talk to.”

Personal stories

This experience was repeated several times during the course of the two counselors’ journey. “You could see immediately that these girls were traumatized by the experience,” Chung shares. “We heard the same stories over and over again. They went to Thailand with the assumption that they would be working in a factory or as a housekeeper, and more times than not they were subjected to some sort of abuse — physical, emotional or sexual, or all three.”

For example, Chung says, one of the girls spoke about working in a five-story factory in Thailand. The girls slept on the top floor, and a barbed wire fence surrounded the facility. They were not allowed to leave, and many were too frightened to attempt an escape. Their captors told the girls that if they did escape, they would be arrested and thrown in prison because they were in Thailand illegally. The young girl who shared her story with Chung was eventually able to escape during a police raid.

“I spoke with some other girls who were around 12 years old when they first migrated. They talked about their boss abusing them. They said that physical abuse was OK — you just get hit or slapped. The sexual abuse really impacted them the most,” Chung says. “Another girl was a housekeeper, and she was drugged. She was abused by the father and sons living in the home, as well as friends of the father.” She adds that many times, girls working as maids or nannies are forced to sleep in closet-size rooms and live off the food scraps left by the family.

Some of the returnees come back to Myanmar completely traumatized, unable to readapt and reintegrate into the community. While in Myanmar, Bemak and Chung began training and advising Save the Children staff on how to work with the children and how to build in avenues for returnees to express their feelings.

“There is a tremendous need for strong supportive aftercare programs for returnees,” Bemak says. “When they come back, the village is the same, the family is the same, nothing has changed, but they are significantly different and they can’t talk to anyone about it. The international organizations need to have some intensive aftercare support for the kids that come back. There needs to be a lot more training going on to help them deal with PTSD, depression, trauma, and those kinds of interventions have to happen within the context of the community and be culturally sensitive.”

Offering recommendations to turn the tide of trauma

In addition to strongly recommending trauma counseling for returnees, Bemak and Chung made several suggestions for dealing with the entire migration continuum, including preventative interventions, improving the life skills of those who are migrating and helping returnees to reintegrate successfully. Among their recommendations:

Illustrate the myths of migration. Returnees often glamorize their experience in Thailand and never speak of the abuse or dangers. “They come back and tell all these wonderful stories about how great it was,” Bemak says. “The history has been that the children don’t talk about the painful parts or difficult parts, so (other) kids start to think it’s a wonderful possibility.”

Bemak and Chung recommended that Save the Children collect real stories from returnees and create story books to explain some of the harder aspects of migration and show the reality of the experience.

Provide additional vocational training. Save the Children currently offers vocational training to teach children a skill so they can make enough money to stay in Myanmar. The organization also requires all returnees who are involved in its programs to take part in the training. Unfortunately, Bemak says, the vocational training is limited only to sewing and small engine repair, leading to an overabundance of workers looking for employment in those two markets. Children often finish the training only to find that there is low demand for their new skills, so they end up returning to menial, low-income jobs or returning to Thailand.

“It doesn’t pay to be back (in Myanmar),” Bemak says. “So we suggested that there might be training in electronics, like for radios and TVs, carpentry, welding or basic business skills, so there are lots of different opportunities. If they have jobs, they are more likely to stay.”

Involve the family in prevention and reintegration. In some instances, Bemak says, children go to work in Thailand and send their earnings back home only to have their parents drink or gamble it away. The children return home several months later to find there is little or nothing to show for their efforts and sacrifice.

Bemak and Chung recommended that Save the Children teach money management skills to families in Myanmar. Additionally, they advised of the need for strong role modes in the community to speak up against migration and support those children remaining at home.

Form partnerships with indigenous groups. In an effort to protect and save children from abuse, Buddhist monks from both Myanmar and Thailand literally capture children and return them to their villages. Many of the monks have established educational programs, interventions and orphanages to persuade children not to return to Thailand. They do this without funding or assistance, seeing “good karma” as the reward for their deeds.

The monks and international organizations in this part of the world have informal relationships, Bemak says, but have not established any real partnership combining efforts to help children. “It’s important for counselors and these programs to link with indigenous healers and spiritual leaders because that will make their chances to help these children stronger,” he says.

Bemak says Save the Children officials are very pleased with the counselors’ recommendations, so much so that Chung and Bemak have been invited back to Myanmar in December to visit the villages bordering China and then again next year to investigate internal migration issues. “We are really establishing a long-term relationship to look at these issues and help some of the international organizations understand what is going on,” Bemak says. “We are hoping this will help set up national prototype programs in Myanmar and establish international protocol because this issue has implications globally.”

The couple encourages counselors to become more proactive in championing social justice and human rights issues. “We as a profession are far larger than our borders,” Bemak says. “The profession needs to look at the internationalization of counseling. We can’t just be limited to the child down the street. We need to start thinking about how do people fit into this international context and how do we work and understand international issues. One out of 10 people in the U.S. is foreign-born, so we are dealing with many multicultural issues. This kind of work that we do in other countries allows us to bring lessons learned on how to work cross-culturally back home.”

Because of their dedication and commitment to these issues, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte has also invited Bemak and Chung to participate on a government task force on refugee and immigrant youth.