RANONG, Thailand (AlertNet) - Friendly, chatty and eager, Aye is like any typical 14-year-old, and yet for the past year, she has been the breadwinner for her family back in Myanmar.
Along with her uncle and aunt, the teenager works in a cafe in the border town of Ranong in southwestern Thailand to pay off debts and send money home to her parents who live in the
cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy region.
With three younger brothers and an older sister, the burden of taking care of her family on Aye's young shoulders.
Aye said her income varies depending on the hours she works and most of what she makes is sent home.
"I write it down in a book and tell my family how much I miss them when I get phone calls from my village," she said. "Then they tell me they are in dire straits and that they cannot make a living at home."
There are many Myanmese children like Aye in Thailand, aid workers say.
Many come from impoverished families suffering political oppression and economic hardship under the iron-fisted rule of Myanmar's military junta. Others have fled poverty and hunger in the Irrawaddy delta region devastated by a 2008 cyclone.
These children are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and live in constant fear of arrest, according to Warangkana Mutumol of Save the Children's cross-border programme, which is based in Thailand.
"Unregistered migrant kids are arrested and sent to borders for deportation without accompanying adults. They are at risk of trafficking and many of them could not go back to their place of
origin," Mutumol told AlertNet.
Most migrant children are unregistered. Except for a brief period in 2004, it is only migrant
workers and not their children that are registered by the Thai government. This means children like Aye are unable to access
basic services such as healthcare.
Every year, thousands of people from Myanmar risk their lives to illegally enter Thailand through three major transit areas including Ranong, a 30-minute boat ride away from Myanmar's port town of Kawthaung and three hours' drive to some
of the most popular beaches in Thailand.
There are thought to be up to two million Myanmar workers in Thailand, many of them illegal. While many charities work to help them, most programmes tend to forget the children, Mutumol said.
"Children are invisible because they are not really recognised as a full human being," she said.
"Children are always under an adult's shadow. It's very common to see adults speak on behalf of children, exert power over children and children feel that they cannot say what they want because adults are always right."
They are also at risk from diseases as a result of living in small, cramped spaces that often lack hygienic conditions. Most migrant quarters are infested with rats and overrun with garbage.
In 2007, Save the Children set up a Â?Child Protection ClubÂ? with Marist Mission Ranong (MMR), a Christian organisation.
The children here, including Aye, receive free, informal education including English, Thai and Myanmar languages and computer skills.
"These kids are actually about to enter labour market at a very young age if we do not intervene," said Mutumol.
She said she had seen children sorting through garbage, labouring in a saw mill and a brick factory and girls as young as 13 working as commercial sex workers in her previous visits.
For Aye, the classes provided by the child protection club give her a brief moment of escape.
"I like learning things," she said. "But if the financial situation doesn't get better, I will have to stay here and work till the debts are paid."