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Cause for hope as Thailand tackles statelessness

December 29, 2021
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#statelessness, #Thailand, #refugees, #United Nations, #citizenship
by:Magdalena Rojo
Thailand ranks among the countries holding the highest number of stateless people. Now, various local and international organisations, together with academics and politicians, are working to achieve zero statelessness in Thailand and put people with no status on a path to citizenship.

A few minutes off the main road between Mae Chan and the Thai-Myanmar border, a steep downward slope leads to the Kiw Satai village, which is inhabited by the Akha ethnic group. In Northern Thailand, there are seven different ethnic groups, referred to as hill tribes. Akha is one of them. 

Some hill tribes made it to Thailand from China, while others fled civil war in Myanmar. Several of them are nomadic, and while they have been living in Thailand for decades, many of their members are stateless.

Villagers gather under a wooden roof by the shop at the entrance to Kiw Satai, as a Thai human rights activist, Tuenjai Deetes, and her colleagues from the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) approach the group. Women are dressed in colorful traditional clothes, pink patterns and silver decorations shining against a black fabric. When asked, they all pulled out their ID cards from small, weaved bags, showing them off with pride. It is still new to them to hold physical proof of their Thai citizenship.

“I went to China with my cousin to visit my family members there. It was the first time we saw each other,” formerly stateless Sosun Bekaku told FairPlanet, emphasising one of the advantages of having her citizenship. Other elderly people started talking about their travels too; some had traveled to Bangkok, others to Pattaya. A young Akha woman stated that, finally, her mother with Alzheimer has the right to receive support from the government. 

A national crisis  

In Thailand, it is extremely easy to inherit stateless status, but very difficult to obtain citizenship. It ranks among the countries with the highest stateless populations, and UNICEF reported that more than half a million stateless people live in the country. 

Stateless people receive no support from the government, are placed under tight movement restrictions and have no access to education, welfare or healthcare. They are largely excluded from the job market and are subjected to a life of perpetual instability and insecurity.

NGOs act on MULTIPLE fronts 

Back in Kiw Stai, villagers approach Tuenjai Deetes with gifts, including handmade bags, home grown vegetables and handmade bracelets. Deetes has devoted her life to helping Thailand eradicate statelessness, and the Akha people from Kiw Satai were among those who were able to obtain Thai nationality through the advocacy and assistance from HADF.

"One of the challenges is [lack of] knowledge on the government's as well as the people's side," Deetes told FairPlanet. "The law is complicated and hard to understand. We help the elders to apply for their citizenship and go through the process."

While HADF works on individual cases, Deetes also advocates to change existing laws. With her grassroots-level experience acquired while working in the hill tribe villages for more than four decades, the Thai activist later entered politics, first as a senator and later on as a member of the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand.

As a result of her involvement in politics, two laws were loosened in 2008. The changes in the 1972 Nationality Law and the Civil Registration Law had led to 90,000 people obtaining Thai citizenship. 

Now, one can be granted Thai citizenship either if they had been born in the country or if their parents are Thai citizens.

But many hill tribe people do not have any evidence of any of these two conditions due to the physical remoteness of the villages they live in and their nomadic lifestyle.

Moreover, stateless status in Thailand is inherited, which is why HADF focuses primarily on the elderly. "If an elderly [person] gains citizenship, then by doing a DNA test, we can prove that [their] children have the right to get Thai nationality too," Deetes explains.

According to UNICEF, around 200,000 of the stateless people in Thailand are children. A joint study by UNICEF and the EU suggests that stateless children face a higher risk of trafficking, abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

Ambitious goal

Thailand joined UNCHR's campaign entitled #IBelong a few years ago, and set itself a goal to achieve zero statelessness by 2024. Over the last three years alone, more than 18,000 people were granted Thai citizenship. Yet, NGOs and UN agencies urge the Thai government to further reduce bureaucratic hurdles. 

"While Thailand has made great progress in legislation and policy for addressing statelessness, the challenge remains largely in translating policy into practice especially at the local level," the study highlights.

"The screening process is still long," said Deetes, adding that the gathering proof through interviews and examination of evidence is currently conducted by three different levels of authority: district, provincial and central.

As part of its collaboration with the EU, UNICEF published a Manual on Birth Registration and Procedures on Facilitating the Right to a Thai Nationality, which details the current legal framework and how it relates to each of the various stakeholders involved, from stateless persons and their family members all the way to academics, civil society organisations and government officials.

Deetes also stressed that the goal Thailand works towards can only be achieved through a collaborative effort. Villagers in Kiw Satai, she argues, could only obtain their Thai nationality thanks to the coordinated involvement of various actors.

HADF states that, at the moment, laws and regulations are being updated and revised with a more humane approach. For instance, proof of historical background and profile could be gathered through more community-oriented methods that ease the process for individuals, such as recognising collective proof of eligibility for all members of a single community.

Fewer requests for proof of income would also quicken the process of obtaining citizenship, considering that members of the hill tribes often engage in agricultural work and are self-employed.

Another useful step towards eradicating statelessness, according to HADF, would be to eliminate the requirement of mastery in the Thai language and recognising local dialects as legitimate communication methods. Having Thailand as one's domicile for at least five consecutive years could also help speed up the process.

"The discussion of accelerating the process is on-going," Ekachai Pinkaew of HADF stated.

Image by Duangphorn Wiriya

Article written by:
Magdalena Rojo
Embed from Getty Images
Thailand ranks among the countries with the highest stateless populations, and UNICEF reported that more than half a million stateless people live in the country.
© Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
According to UNICEF, around 200,000 of the stateless people in Thailand are children. A joint study by UNICEF and the EU suggests that stateless children face a higher risk of trafficking, abuse, exploitation and discrimination.
© Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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