Opening eyes of migrants to dangers of big cities' embrace

With ever greater numbers of people on the move in search of jobs and opportunities in the Mekong River region, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has unveiled a series animated videos to inform and warn migrant workers about the risk of HIV/AIDS.

The videos - developed especially for use in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos - target young people from rural villages, who usually have scant knowledge of HIV as they set out in search of a better life in booming industrial zones and cities.

Away from home and traditionally conservative village social mores, migrants have proven particularly vulnerable to HIV: their sense of dislocation and loneliness often encourages high-risk behaviour, including unprotected sex, multiple partners, and the use of injected drugs.

"Migrants on the move, away from home and faced by new social circumstances, are at higher risk of contracting HIV than other groups," said Christopher Lowenstein-Lom, a spokesman for IOM.

Keeping it real

The videos have storylines based on the experiences of real migrant workers, reflecting the common factors that push people from their villages - including landlessness and the disruption caused by major infrastructure projects - and situations they often encounter in the cities.

The graphics depict the cramped, basic rooms in which migrant workers typically live, their common work settings and meagre possessions. Even the dialogue in the series - available in the five national languages - uses the vocabulary and speech patterns common to rural dwellers and migrants.

This attention to detail is intended to ensure that migrants relate to the characters and recognise their own potential risk of contracting HIV, rather than seeing the disease as something that only affects others.

"Even the hairstyles and clothes had to fit with what migrants can relate to," said Maria Nenette Motus, an IOM regional health advisor. "Those engaging in risky behaviour do not see themselves at risk, so we need to 'personalise' it."

Migration in the greater Mekong Region has surged in recent years, reflecting the widening divergence in opportunities and growing income disparity between rural and urban areas.

Economic boom

Thailand, the region's biggest economy, registered 1.2 million previously undocumented foreign migrant workers from neighbouring countries in 2004: 70 percent from Myanmar, and 14 percent each from Cambodia and Laos.


Photo: World Bank
AIDS activists in the Thai capital, Bangkok

Experts believe that figure represented around half of the real number of migrants living in Thailand, since many illegal foreign workers were afraid to register, or simply could not pay the hefty registration fee. With the deterioration of economic conditions under the military government of Myanmar the migrant population is thought to have increased even more since 2004.

Growing national economies are also drawing young people from the countryside. Cambodia, for example, now has an estimated 350,000 people, mainly young women from rural villages, working in its booming garment industry. Vietnam's bubbling economy, growing at eight percent annually, is also bringing new job opportunities, often far from home.

Regional public health experts fret that a growing number of migrants, untouched by current HIV awareness campaigns, are venturing into risky sex and drug use. "They lose their family safety nets, so they can do whatever they want," said Dr Ly Peng Sun, from Cambodia's National Centre for HIV/AIDS.

Do Huu Thuy, a senior expert from Vietnam's Bureau of AIDS, TB and Sexually Transmitted Infections, said a recent study of Vietnamese truck drivers found that 40 percent had visited at least one sex worker in the last year, and that 33 percent to 50 percent reported that they never used a condom during sex.

The IOM video series, intended for use in interactive sessions that include games and activities to familiarise migrants with condoms, could prove an effective tool in raising awareness and teaching basic skills.

"There is no room for complacency," said IOM's Dr Motus. "The challenge is how to bring down this information to the target groups that matter most."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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