Southeast Asia’s porous borders have made migration an integral part of the region. The need for a job as well as cheap labour has meant that the transit of migrant workers intra-regionally and inter-regionally across East-Asia and Middle-East a common recurrence. The ill-treatment of migrant-workers, ranging from poor-pay, limited rights, to abuse, have headlined news in the region before. However, there is a side to the migrant story that has yet to be well explored: what happens to the children of migrant workers who are left behind by their parents?
So, who are left-behind children? As many people in Southeast Asia are experiencing differing levels of poverty, they seek opportunities abroad, as they are seen to be better paid. Many women in particular jump on this opportunity to support their family, hoping that wit the wages that they receive abroad, can be exchanged to money back-home for their children. As a result, they choose to leave their family behind to go to work, particularly as domestic workers, in other southeast-Asian countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam or Thailand, or inter-regionally, such as in Japan, Hong Kong, or the Middle-East.
A left-behind child is a term used to capture the condition and the lack of choice that the parents have, as poverty is seen to be the driving force of the conditions. There is indeed a discrepancy between low-wage migrants and those who are in high-wages, as low-wage migrants are unable to bring their spouse and children to their countries of destination. Many countries, such as Singapore and Japan, have separation in visas, and subsequently rights, of low-wage migrants, who are prohibited from bringing their family to live with them, even if they are financially capable to do so.
This is a particularly difficult journey for both parents and children. Ease of communication is difficult, as they first may not have access to technologies such as the internet in the villages, or the migrant workers themselves are prohibited from owning handphones. Being left behind by their parents means that children are often left with other family members or friends. Children are at risk of being rejected from family members, or ironically be stripped of their opportunities due to the presence of parents to push for it. Children often suffer from bullying at school, leading to low self-esteem and loneliness which can be impactful for the duration of their lives. Further, without the protection of their parents, and the precarious living conditions, there have been cases of sexual abuse against the left-behind children. Importantly, some of the children also lack proper documentation, such as birth certificates or identity cards, which makes access to education and health services much more difficult and expensive.
That being said, the burden of responsibility for the upbringing of left-behind children of migrant workers shall not solely rest on the family and the village, state government and ASEAN both play an important role in order to institutionalise the children’s rights. Firstly, lessons can be drawn from Indonesia’s experience with ‘Desa Migran Produktif’ (Desmigratif) or Productive Migrant Village. Desmigratif is a village where the majority of the population works abroad and is created to understand the placement and protection system of workers, both at home and abroad. Pillar 3 of Desmigratif comprises efforts in community parenting, which includes parenting training for guardians of the children, counselling services, and aid for the children’s education. Desmigratif has been seen to synergise and integrate efforts in supporting migrant workers and highlighted the need to pay attention to the welfare of the left-behind children. Similar policies can be adopted by sending countries in order to better protect the rights of left-behind children. Indonesia can be seen to provide an example, and further, can take a lead in promoting its policies to other countries.
For ASEAN, there should be a regional plan of action on the implementation of ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The ASEAN Consensus was signed by ASEAN Leaders during the 31st ASEAN Summit in November 2017. Its provisions can be categorised under five broad areas: education/information, protection, enforcement, recourse; and reintegration. The Declaration on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers in ASEAN was initially signed on February 2007. What is important to note is the fact that ASEAN Consensus does not have legal weight, and does not require member states to ratify the document nationally for implementation. Its moral weight has yet to amount to significant positive changes for migrant workers in the region. A regional plan of action for the implementation of the ASEAN Consensus is thus necessary not only to protect the rights of migrant workers but subsequently the rights of their families as well. ASEAN perhaps can come up with either a solution, a declaration, or a work plan to resolve this issue.