THAILAND - More than 3 million Thai children do not live with their parents - and the national ratio of 21 per cent of children who live with caregivers, such as their grandparents, has alarmed experts from overseas.
"This is a remarkably high proportion compared with other countries and should be a major cause of concern," said Andrew Claypole, social policy chief for Unicef Thailand, which believes it could have key ramifications for children's learning.
"People in Thailand think it is normal for grandparents or others to take care of babies, infants and children whose parents have migrated. It is not. The scale of this internal migration phenomenon is massive."
Claypole was speaking at the launch of first-phase results from an ongoing study about the impact of internal migration on early childhood development. The results show that children who do not live with their parents are more susceptible to slower development, particularly in language skills.
In the Northeast, about one third of children have been under the care of others - the majority living with their grandparents.
"With children suspected of slower development, their language development rate appeared to be the worst - for 15 per cent," Associate Prof Sutham Nantamongkolchai, a researcher at Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR), said yesterday.
The institute has conducted the study with support from Unicef.
"The Impact of Internal Migration on Early Childhood Well-being and Development" study has covered 1,080 children up to three years, to gauge long-term impacts of internal migration on toddlers and those who care for them.
It focuses on Phitsanulok and Khon Kaen provinces, which are said to be top areas for internal migration, with expected final results in 2016. It is also studying impacts on caregivers, as they are seen as being at risk of mental problems.
Young children aged up to three, who do not live with both their parents, are prone to slower development - a rate of about 25 per cent, when compared to children who live with both or one parent, who have less slow development - 16 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.
"In cases where children do not live with both their parents, the educational background of the caretakers are usually of primary school education for 83 per cent," IPSR research team leader, Assoc Prof Aree Jampaklay said.
"The psychological health of caretakers is also a very important aspect, because the health of these people is mirrored back in the psychological health and overall emotional well-being of the child," Aree said.
"The impact of internal migration on children 'left behind' has been relatively under-researched. It has generally been assumed that overall benefits of internal migration to the well-being of children 'left behind' outweigh any potential downsides," Claypole said.
"The process of socialisation should also be focused with child development because parents play a vital role," said Mathuros Cheechag, director of the Bureau of Family Institution Promotion, at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
"Focusing on violence would also be interesting to see how it affects children's growth," she said. "This shows that the family unit is not that strong."
Suriyadeo Tripati, director of the National Institute for Child and Family Development (NICFD), also asked for more focus on process and parenting styles. He claimed that parental roles and individual development are important as they contribute to IQ building.