“When I first came to Thailand from Cambodia, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t understand the language, so I mostly had to rely on my employer for information,” says Uso, as he recalled his journey as a new migrant worker.
“Thankfully, my friend put me in touch with someone in my community who guided me through legal employment documentation and helped me to travel and access health services. Since then, I have aspired to help fellow migrants in my community, so they don’t feel stranded in a foreign land.”
Migrant workers from neighbouring countries – predominantly Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar (CLM) – constitute an estimated 10 per cent of Thailand’s total labour force and make vital contributions to the Thai economy. However, they often face difficulties in accessing health and support services due to language barriers and the lack of proper legal documentation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these difficulties were amplified as a result of stigma and discrimination fuelled by misconception and misinformation – leading to very low vaccination rates among migrants.
“Vaccines are key to keeping our communities safe and preventing the COVID-19 virus,” adds Uso. “Migrants in my community didn’t have sufficient information about vaccines. Many didn’t know getting vaccinated was free, while others didn’t have any idea where they could receive vaccines.”
Today, Uso, proficient in the Thai language after living in the country for over a decade, is working to provide accurate COVID-19 information to migrants and help them access vaccines. He is one of 285 Migrant Health Volunteers (MHVs) that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is working with in six provinces, as part of efforts to promote vaccine uptake among migrant communities.
MHVs are a network of bilingual migrants who provide accurate and rights-based information, training and support to other migrants in their community. IOM works together with MHVs to build on the Royal Thai Government’s efforts towards a migrant-inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery. This includes ensuring the inclusion of both documented and undocumented migrants in the national COVID-19 vaccination rollout programme.
Thanks to a concerted effort by multiple partners, the percentage of non-Thai nationals receiving their second dose increased from 7 per cent in November 2021 to 20 per cent in June 2022 – compared to the national figure of 43 per cent and 76 per cent, respectively. By September 2022, 46 per cent of CLM migrants, in particular, had received their second dose – compared to the national average of 77 per cent.
From November 2021 to September 2022, IOM reached 10,944 migrants through health education sessions, distributed relief packages to 2,462 migrant families and supported 2,877 migrants to access vaccines.
Support includes awareness raising and health education, arranging free transportation to vaccination centres, coordinating with provincial health offices to obtain their vaccination certificates and post-immunisation monitoring of adverse effects.
“Health literacy and awareness are critical in the fight against the pandemic. MHVs play a crucial role in delivering key messages in migrant-accessible languages and providing much-needed support for migrants to get vaccinated,” explains Suzanna Lipscombe, IOM Thailand’s Migration Health Officer who oversees the vaccination initiative. “They support local health authorities in mapping out at-risk communities and offer channels of communication to their peers and communities, building trust and a better understanding of vaccines.”
In coordination with local partners like the Stella Maris Organization and World Vision Foundation in Thailand, IOM equips MHVs with the tools and capacities to deliver impactful education sessions on COVID-19 prevention, promote vaccine literacy and conduct post-vaccination monitoring of adverse effects. In addition, IOM works with partners to produce training manuals and visual materials in Burmese and Khmer, for MHVs to use in their awareness raising efforts.
“During the MHV training session, we emphasize the importance of sharing unbiased information. MHVs help us to expand our network, reach more migrant communities and help us to assess their needs,” says Nattaya Petcharat, Project Manager at Stella Maris Organization.
Furthermore, IOM distributes relief packages to support migrant families to recover from the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19. “The food and hygiene items provided to my family helped us save a week of our living expenses. We can now use our savings to buy food and medicine when we get sick,” says one of the recipients.
Despite significant strides made in promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake among migrant communities, more work remains to be done.
"A key concern among majority of migrant workers when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine is the fear of getting sick. Most migrants work on a daily wage basis and don't get any compensation for sick leave,” explains Navi, another MHV, sharing one of the key findings from post-symptom monitoring surveys.
Both Uso and Navi can be counted on to continue supporting outreach efforts, after expressing that working as MHVs has made them more independent.
“I hope that, someday, migrant workers can access social services in Thailand independently without having to rely on interpreters or employers,” Uso reflects.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that no one is safe until everyone is safe. To overcome the pandemic’s effects and build back better, a migrant-inclusive recovery is paramount.
This initiative is part of IOM’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts and is funded by the Government of Australia, World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
This story was written by Anushma Shrestha, IOM Thailand Media and Communications Consultant.