Forced Migrant Youth’s Identity Development and Agency in Resettlement Decision-Making: Liminal Life on the Myanmar-Thailand Border

  • Jessica Ball
  • Sarah Moselle


Migration and refugee studies have elaborated upon themes of voice, subjectivity, and agency of mobile adults while comparatively neglecting forced migrant children and youth. Decades of armed conflict and economic collapse in Myanmar resulted in millions of forced migrants living in neighboring Thailand, China, and Malaysia. This article focuses on the experiences of forced migrant youth aged 12 to 17 from Myanmar who have grown up as temporary residents along the northwest border of Thailand. They are often stateless and disconnected from their families, communities, and cultures of origin and excluded from the formal economy and institutional affiliations, living in a liminal state on the edge of society. This article sets out a rationale for prospective research exploring how forced migrant youth may be both vulnerable and resilient, both victims and agents, and carriers of both their cultures of origin and globalized identities shaped by displacement. Exploring the issues raised in this article can challenge foundational theories of child development regarding normative development and necessary conditions for thriving, which underpin international law and settlement practices. This paper provides a contextual overview and charts a program of research with the intention to better understand the capacity of youth on the move and contribute meaningfully to decision-making about their repatriation or resettlement.


Download data is not yet available.


Alba, Richard, Albert J. Raboteau and Josh DeWind. eds. 2009. Immigration and Religion America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives. New York: New York University Press.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Ball, Jessica; Leslie Butt, Harriet Beazley and Natasha Fox. 2014. “Advancing Research on ‘Stateless Children’: Family Decision-making and Birth Registration among Transnational Migrants in the Asia-Pacific Region. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives. Accessed May 15 2016.

Ball, Jessica, and Angela Dim. In press. “Migrant Learning Centres on the Thai-Myanmar Borderland: Giving New Meaning to ‘Live and Learn.’” Childhood Education.

Ball, Jessica and Sarah Moselle. In press. “Living Liminally: Migrant Children Living in the Myanmar-Thailand Border Region.” Journal of Global Childhoods.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2011. Migration and Identities in the Globalized World. Philosophy and Social Criticism 37 (4): 425-435.

Beazley, Harriot. 2003. “Voices from the Margins: Street Children’s Subcultures in Indonesia.” Children’s Geographies 1 (2): 181-200.

Beazley, Harriot. 2015. “Multiple Identities, Multiple Realities: Children who Migrate Independently for Work in Southeast Asia.” Children’s Geographies 13 (3): 296-309.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routlege.

Bhabha, Jacqueline. 2014. Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bicocchi, Luca. 2011. “Undocumented Children in Europe: Ignored Victims of Immigration Restrictions.” In J. Bhabha ed. Children without a State: A Global Human Rights Challenge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 109-130.

Blitz, Brad K. 2011. “Neither seen nor heard”: Compound Deprivation Among Stateless Children. In J. Bhabha ed. Children without a State: A Global Human Rights Challenge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 43-66.

Boyden, Jo 2003. “Children under Fire: Challenging Assumptions about Children’s Resilience.” Children, Youth And Environments 13 (1): 1-29.

Boyden, Jo and de Berry, Joanna. ed. 2004. Children and Youth on the Front line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Committee for the Protection and Promotion of Child Rights (Burma). 2009. “Feeling Small in Another Person’s Country: The Situation of Burmese Migrant Children in Mae Sot, Thailand.” Unpublished report, Accessed May 15 2016.

Dare, A. 2015. Beyond Access: Refugee Students’ Experiences of Myanmar State Education. Bangkok: Australian AID and Save the Children Thailand.

Dobson, Madeleine E. 2009. “Unpacking Children in Migration Research.” Children’s Geographies 7 (3): 355-360.

Ensor, Marisa O. 2010. “Understanding Migrant Children: Conceptualizations, Approaches, and Issues.” In M.O. Ensor and E.M. Gozdziak eds. Children and Migration at the Crossroads of Resiliency and Vulnerability. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 15-35.

Ensor, Marisa O. and Elzbieta M. Godzdziak. eds. 2010. Children and Migration at the Crossroads of Resiliency and Vulnerability. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Glick-Schiller, Nina, Linda Basch, and Blanc Szanton. 1995. From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration. Anthropological Quarterly, 68 (1): 48-63.

Goris, I., Harrington, J. and Kohn, S. 2009. “Statelessness: What it is and Why it Matters.” Forced Migration Review 32: 4-6.

Hart, Jason. 2006. “Putting Children in the Picture.” Forced Migration Review (July), 9-10.

Hart, Jason. 2014. “Locating Young Refugees Historically: Attending to Age Position in Humanitarianism.” European Journal of Development Research 26 (2): 219-232.

Huijsmans, Roy B.C. 2012. “Beyond Compartmentalization: A Relational Approach Towards Agency and Vulnerability of Young Migrants.” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 29-45.

Huijsmans, Roy B.C. and Thi Ha Lan Tran. 2015. “Enacting Nationalism through Youthful Mobilities? Youth, Mobile Phones and Digital Capitalism in Lao-Vietnamese Borderland. Nations and Nationalism.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, 21 (2): 209-229.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. 2007. Diaspora conversions: Black Carib Religion and the recovery of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lynch, Maureen. 2010. “Without Face or Future: Stateless Infants, Children, and Youth.” In M.O. Ensor and E.M. Gozdziak eds. Children and Migration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 117-140.

Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. 2014. The World’s Stateless. Oisterwijk, Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers.

IOM: United Nations. 2000. “World Migration Report 2000,” International Organization for Migration , United Nations, Geneva.

Lynch, Maureen, and Melanie Teff. 2009. “Childhood Statelessness.” Forced Migration Review 32 (April): 31-33.

Myanmar Education Integration Initiative. 2013. “Myanmar Migrant Education Review Summary: Review, Strategies, Recommendations, Plans.” Accessed May 15 2016.

Park, Joy. 2009. “A Global Crisis Writ Large: the Effects of being “Stateless in Thailand” on Hill-tribe Children.” San Diego International Law Journal 10 (2): 495.

Refugees International. 2004. Stolen Futures: The Stateless Children of Burmese Asylum Seekers. Washington, DC: Refugees International.

Rumbaut, Ruben G. 1994. “The Crucible within: Ethnic Identity, Self-esteem, and Segmented Assimilation among Children of Immigrants.” International Migration Review, 28 (4): 748-794.

Save the Children and World Education. 2015. Pathways to a Better Future: A Review of Education for Migrant Children in Thailand: A Situational Analysis of Two Communities. Bangkok and Mae Sot. Bangkok: Authors.

Tran Thi Ha Lan and Roy Huijsmans. 2014. “Experiencing the State and Negotiating Belonging in Zomia: Pa Koh and Bru-Van Kieu Ethnic Minority Youth in a Lao-Vietnamese Borderland.” In S. Sypros and M. Chrisou eds. Children and Borders (Studies in Childhood and Youth). Basingstone, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 27-46.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. 2005. “General Comment No. 6: Treatment of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Outside their Country of Origin,” 1 September, Geneva: UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

United Nations General Assembly. 1989. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” 20 November, United Nations, Treaty Series, Vol. 1577. New York: UN General Assembly.

United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1990. “Final Report: World Conference on Education for All: Meeting Basic Learning needs.” Report on the Jomtien Conference, 5-9 March 1990. Paris: UNESCO, EFA Secretariat.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2006. “Global Appeal: Finding Durable Solutions.” Accessed May 15 2016.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2012b). “Guidelines on Statelessness No. 1: The Definition of “Stateless Person” in Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.” 20 February 2012, HCR/GS/12/01.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2014. “Statistics and Operational Data. Accessed July 15 2016.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015a. “Worldwide Displacement Hits all-time High as War and Persecution Increase.” June 18. Accessed July 15 2016.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015b. “Global Trends Report: Forced Displacement in 2014. Geneva: UNHCR. Accessed July 15 2016.

Van Bueren, Geraldine. 2011. “Multigenerational Citizenship: The Importance of Recognizing Children as National and International Citizens.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 633 (1): 30-51.

Van Waas, Laura. 2014. “‘Are we there yet?’ The Emergence of Statelessness on the International Human Rights Agenda.” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 342-346.

Wells, Karen, Erica Burman, Heather, Montgomery, and Alison Watson. 2014. eds. Childhood, Youth and Violence in Global Contexts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zetter. Roger. 2007. “More Labels, Fewer Refugees: Remaking the Refugee Label in an Era of Globalization.” Journal of Refugee Studies 20 (2): 172-192.