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Enhancing English education in Thailand’s refugee camps

Teacher William Grice explores the challenges of teaching English to refugees in the context of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

I recently came across an insightful article in the Gazette regarding Professor Hayo Reinders’ guidance on English language teaching for refugees. While its focus is seemingly on Western educational settings, the guidance is transferable, especially when we consider the complex situation unfolding in the nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

To provide some context: Myanmar’s history has been turbulent. From the prolonged rule of a military junta from 1962 to 2011 – pushing numerous ethnic minorities to neighbouring countries – to a hopeful period of democratisation under Aung San Suu Kyi, the country has been marked by upheavals. Most recently, in February 2021, the military overthrew the democratically elected government, triggering a devastating civil war that has left approximately 1.95 million Burmese displaced.

Thailand hasn’t remained untouched, with refugees pouring in; countless face vulnerability and are forced into exploitative situations. Most shockingly, about 200,000 children lack access to formal education despite the efforts of Migrant Learning Centres operating on the fringes of legality. While the challenges for displaced Burmese migrants resonate with those of ethnic minorities in Thailand’s refugee camps, this article focuses specifically on refugee education within the camps that house predominantly Karens and Karenni.

The complexities we can’t ignore

Diving into Thailand’s refugee camps reveals a challenging landscape for education. Here, refugees grapple with strict regulations that not only prevent them from leaving but also hinder their access to quality education.

The hurdles are multifaceted, and while infrastructure and resources are limited, it’s the bureaucratic barriers which truly disempower refugees’ learning opportunities. After all, many students find themselves caught in accreditation challenges, making transitions into Thai or Myanmar formal educational systems all but impossible, and native English-speaking teachers with whom to practice English are technically barred from the camps, too. The complexities of high teacher turnover due to low salaries and poor training add to the challenges and, unsurprisingly, many young people prioritise earning a living over further education in this context.

However, despite everything, there’s a glimmer of community-driven curriculum success. Rather than imposing Thai, the host language, to assimilate, educational authorities within the camps are permitted to teach heritage languages, generally Skaw Karen, alongside English and other subjects, albeit via somewhat old-fashioned teaching methods. Admittedly, communities not proficient in Skaw Karen, such as the Tenasserim and Mon among others, are facing increased dropout rates and of course, Thai authorities may have ulterior motives in discouraging the learning of Thai. Yet, notwithstanding the political nature of language choices, the resilience and community spirit evident in these camp-schools’ curricula remain encouraging.

Applying Professor Reinders’ guidance

Thai law prohibits NGO staff from teaching English in refugee camps, however, numerous schools in the less isolated camps employ native English-speaking teachers as volunteers regardless. These teachers live among the refugees without proper permits and, despite risking fines and deportation, clandestinely teach English while evading the Thai authorities. Valuable teaching advice for readers contemplating such volunteering opportunities is now provided via application of Prof. Reinders’ guidance (as found in Supporting Refugees). After all, many teachers feel ill-prepared to deal with refugees’ uniquely challenging needs – educational, social, and affective – with specialised training in short supply, too.

Learning the global lingua franca is highly beneficial for Karen and Karenni refugees, enhancing their self-worth and dignity as well as employability. However, certain challenges need considering, such as limited literacy, L1 interference from multiple heritage languages, limited resources, interrupted schooling, gaps in foundational knowledge, a scarcity of native English speakers for communicative practice, and anxiety or depression relating to imprisonment within the camp.

The literacy challenges are echoed by Prof. Reinders who quotes a group of refugee women from Myanmar as saying: ‘We are not literate. We cannot give them [children] that support.’ Moreover, serious financial worries, limited career options, and outmoded gender norms, all serve to reduce students’ motivation, and ability, to learn English. As a volunteer, you too will face emotional challenges when hearing about students’ traumatic pasts and should seek to discuss such experiences in safe spaces.

In navigating such complexities, Prof. Reinders’ provides highly applicable guidance. Firstly, it’s vital to approach refugee education with respect. Framing learners as vulnerable or requiring charity is both diminishing and unhelpful. Try, instead, adopting an asset-based approach whereby your classes’ quirks and challenges are reframed as assets, with self-worth and agency ultimately promoted. Highlighting students’ rich cultural and linguistic
backgrounds in Mon, Kuki-Chin, and Skaw-Karen is one way of achieving this, as is celebrating their creativity, resilience, and adaptability as refugees. Holistically integrating problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and cultural understanding into literacy development is also beneficial.

Ideally, a systematic assessment of learner needs would be carried out, enhancing the development of learning plans; however, given volunteers’ often limited training, such initiatives remain challenging. At any rate, Prof. Reinders outlines these pedagogic principles, highly applicable to volunteering in Thailand:

  1. Relevant: include language topics relevant to life in a Thai refugee camp, such as getting involved in NGO-led sporting opportunities, navigating the camp, or shopping for groceries.
  2. Situated: facilitate activities within meaningful situations, like visiting a local-craft workshop, role-playing, or project-based learning; students learn best by doing.
  3. Social: incorporate daily rhythms and group activities into lessons – ideally utilising students’ Karen and Karenni backgrounds – to convey a sense of normality while promoting collaboration and communication.
  4. Affective: emphasise emotional skilldevelopment and self-care to mitigate students’ anxiety, frustration, and lack of confidence stemming from the camp’s prison-like conditions and limited career opportunities.
  5. Scaffolded: reduce students’ cognitive load and help them understand (and participate) in lessons by simplifying instructions, using gestures, signposting, slowing your pace, and repeating language; especially important given refugees’ often limited literacy.
  6. Empowering: Slowly introduce avenues for students to self-regulate. Allow them to take ownership over their learning and academic achievements. This fosters independence and resilience, and is highly empowering.

Supporting Karen, Karenni, and other ethnic minority students in Thailand’s refugee camps demands a variety of skills, in other words, with flexibility and empathy being especially key for volunteers. By adapting your teaching methods and adopting Prof. Reinder’s principles though, you can significantly help some of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable English learners and make a positive difference to their lives.

Image courtesy of Library
William Grice
William Grice
William Grice is an Med TESOL student at the University of Exeter with a passion for education and profound belief inits transformative power. Equipped with a CELTA and practical teaching experience in Vietnam, he has honed his pedagogy, always driven by language’s ability to connect people. Committed to fostering communicative competence through an innovative approach, William seeks to empower his students, unlock their potential, and shape a brighter future through the realm of education.
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