Guest contribution by Samanachan Buddhajak
It had only been a year since Kotchakorn Ayuyo married a German man and moved from Bangkok to Weiden in der Oberpfalz in the southern state of Bavaria. She had taken her 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage to live with them and they were learning German. Then her husband suddenly died.
“I just don’t know what to do. I’m heartbroken. I’m shocked. I’m trying to gather my wits,” she posted in a Facebook group for Thai women living in Germany in early September. “I’ve heard that if you’ve been married for under three years and you divorce or your husband dies, the government will immediately deport you. Is that true?”
Her post in the online group with over 19,000 members received more than 300 comments from people offering advice and help.
In the end, German authorities agreed to extend the visas of Kotchakorn and her daughter for one year on the condition that she achieves a basic level of proficiency in the German language within that time.
“I was lucky to have friends and acquaintances who stepped in to help me with everything–from paperwork, to my daughter’s schooling, and all kinds of other things,” the 38-year-old Kotchakorn wrote via Facebook messenger. “The Thai government was not involved at all.”
It is a common misperception in Thai society that marrying and moving abroad with a foreign spouse is a shortcut to an easy life. In reality, though, many of these marriage migrants, most of them women, often face various challenges like loneliness, culture shocks, issues with immigration, financial pressures, and relationship problems.
Challenges of a new life
Benjalak Beck, a native of Sakon Nakhon province, moved to Germany nine years ago after marrying a German engineer. She met her husband in a bar in Bangkok and they dated until they decided get married.
She had left her rural home when she was 17 years old, worked in a shopping mall in Bangkok and put herself through night school to eventually graduate with a high school diploma.
“I never thought I would go abroad, or even that I would marry a foreigner. It never even crossed my mind!” Benjalak says.
But her new life in the southern state of Baden Württemberg in the beginning came with a host of challenges, the 45-year-old says. Although she had prepared herself by taking language classes in Bangkok one year in advance, the language barrier was difficult to overcome once she arrived in Germany.
“When I first got here, I couldn’t understand what people were saying at all. The things I learned in class and what is said in real life were quite different,” she recalls. “It took time for me to overcome the frustration of not being able to communicate. It wasn’t easy.”
At that time there were few online resources for Thai migrants and Benjalak says she had to figure out many things by herself or with the support of other Thais in Germany.
“I had to adapt to a new way of life. Being married in a foreign country isn’t the fairy tale that a lot of people dream about,” Benjalak says. “There were so many problems to deal with, such as the language and cultural differences, as well as other things. But I just gradually adapted and dealt with all the problems.”
Providing support to Thai women abroad
Apart from forming online communities for mutual support, Thai women also often have access to non-governmental organizations that offer help to migrant women in need.
Ban-Ying is a long-estblished coordination and counselling center based in Berlin for migrant women, many of them from Thailand, who have experienced violence, exploitation, or human trafficking. The organization provides assistance and works to improve the living conditions and legal situation of migrant women in Germany.
“Thai women overseas are not necessarily living a charmed life like so many people dream them to be,” says Parichat Pai, a coordinator at Ban-Ying. “All kinds of problems can occur in marriage, including misunderstandings, cultural differences, money problems.”
In some particularly bad cases that Parichat has dealt with in her nine years of working in the field, Thai women were forced into prositution by their own husbands.
“When you try to tell people that you’ll run into some problems when you move overseas, nobody listens,” Parichat sayss of her experience. “It’s hard to stop people from doing anything when they’re in love.”
Data from the Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development as reported by BBC Thai shows that in 2017, there were a total of 108,763 Thais married to foreigners in Europe. Of that number 36,775 were women.
A government center for mia farang
In August 2018, the government opened a center near Khon Kaen University to provide advice and support to Thai women who plan to marry foreigners or those who seek assistance in times of trouble.
Data from the Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development shows that in 2018, more than 7,000 women in Khon Kaen were married to foreigners, the highest number in Isaan.
The center’s main role is to coordinate with other agencies in the country and overseas in order to render assistance to Thai women married to foreigners. The aim is to help ease family problems that can arise when there are difficulties adapting to the differences in language, culture, and values.
Benjamat Hayajantha, the center’s director, says the center also aims to educate marriage migrants on cultural differences and rights as well as about the channels where they can seek help.
“We’re here to coordinate and help them solve problems when things go wrong,” Benjamat says. “We’re definitely not a matchmaking agency like many people misunderstand us to be.”
The center was co-founded by Dusadee Ayuwat, an assistant professor at KKU who has been researching transnational marriages of Thai women in Khon Kaen. She’s also the director of the university’s Labor and International Migration Service Center.
Through interviews with Thai women married to foreigners abroad, she found that the lives many of these women encountered were anything but charmed.
“Many of them work extremely hard. They have to deal with a foreign culture and rules and regulations that they are not used to. They have to deal with the pressures and expectations of their families, too,” Dusadee says. “I had to find a way to help them.”
Before the clinic was founded, Dusadee led a capacity-building course aimed at helping Isaan women and their families who were about to move abroad with their foreign spouses. Dusadee says the course served to help guard against human trafficking which the Thai government has identified as one of the problems in transnational marriages.
Low demand for advice
But since the center’s opening over two years ago, very few women have actually made use of its services. The staff declined to reveal the exact figures of how many people have visited or contacted the center so far .
“Our clinic is probably not that widely known, and the people who do know about us may think that we can’t actually help them with their problems,” Benjamat says. “That’s why we’re planning on launching some community outreach missions, focusing on the areas with especially high instances of transnational marriages. We want them to come and use this service more.”
Parichat of the Ban-Ying foundation in Berlin agrees that more should be done to prepare Thai women before they make the move abroad. Not only would prior preparation help avert various problems, but it would ease the transition into living a fulfilling life according to foreign norms, she says.
“If the government agencies in Thailand really want to help, they should help to spell out the various steps and procedures involved in moving abroad,” Parichat says. “Or better yet, they should get people who have actually been there and done that to come and tell or teach others. This would make the information more accessible than if it were to come out of a government office.”
Benjalak who’s been in Germany for nine years agrees. “It’s good that there’s a clinic like this because cultures really are different and preparation is so important,”
“If you can understand the cultural differences and learn some employable skills before getting married, your life abroad will have so many more options,” she argues. “This is where the Thai government should get involved.”
Translated and edited by The Isaan Record
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