There are 28 million children worldwide who are refugees, asylum seekers, or displaced persons. Many of these children were born and have grown up in refugee camps, informal settlements, and temporary shelters where basic necessities like clean water, proper housing, and schools are precarious or absent. The COVID-19 crisis has made the situation in many places much worse.

The effects of displacement on children are severe. Mental health issues like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are more common in refugee children. Familial and social bonds also become frayed, reducing the support refugee children receive at home, and increasing the importance of schools as centres for psychosocial support. But refugee and displaced children are five times as likely to be out of school as other children. We make education accessible for displaced children, to help them develop the resilience to cope with their conditions and take leadership in their communities.

Supporting Children in Thailand

Right To Play works in seven of nine temporary shelters for displaced persons from Myanmar. These shelters have been in place since 1984, when Karen refugees fled persecution by the former military government of Myanmar. They’re walled encampments with limited infrastructure. Most are located in remote parts of the country. Mae La, the largest, is an educational centre for the rest of the shelters, with students from other camps living in residence while they go to school.

Over 120,000 children in Thailand have benefited from Right To Play lessons that help them do better academically and socially.

More than 93,000 people live in these shelters, about half of them under 18. There are another 470,000 stateless people spread out across Thailand. Over the past decade, we have helped more than 120,000 displaced children who have passed through the shelter system.

We do that by creating positive environments where children can develop to their full potential. We train local teachers who work in these camps and equip them with play-based teaching methods that ignite children’s potential to learn, boosting their academic performance and helping them acquire social, emotional and cognitive skills. These skills help children navigate the challenges of displacement and advocate for their rights with adults.

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We also help these communities rebuild their social cohesion that has been damaged by displacement. Our youth groups organize community gatherings that promote stronger parent-child bonds and give families a chance to meet their neighbours. These gatherings serve as places where the community can debate and resolve issues they are facing, and where youth can use their newly developed communication skills to advocate for their interests and concerns. The result is a stronger, more cohesive community that can better provide for its members’ emotional needs, especially children’s.

Responding to COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis poses special challenges. While Thailand hasn’t reported a high number of cases, quarantine means that gatherings have been cancelled for safety and travel into shelters is tightly restricted. Students who have traveled to Mae La from other shelters for their studies have either had to return to their homes or are stranded away from family until the quarantine is lifted. Gatherings of more than three people from different households are forbidden. These conditions of social isolation have put thousands of children’s mental health at risk.

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We have pivoted our programs to provide more support to teachers and coaches, equipping them with skills and training to help their students cope with the emotional toll of social isolation. We have developed manuals and leaflets that they can distribute without direct contact so that children can continue to learn and grow while they’re at home. We are also setting up stronger digital communication between the shelters including regular video conferences between teachers and coaches, so they can plan with one another and share ideas.

As we emerge from this crisis, these supports will continue to empower teachers, coaches and the displaced families they serve. The longer children are out of school, the more their education is disrupted, and the more likely it is that that may never go back. With our coaches and partners, we’re working to ensure children have opportunities and support to keep learning and stay mentally strong.

We believe that every child, even those faced with the challenges of displacement and relocation, can come out of this crisis with more resilience, stronger connections to their community, and a brighter future. You can play an important role in supporting these children during and after the crisis.