No longer stateless, a young football enthusiast finds his voice

Born into a stateless family in Thailand, Sai Nhamjoom recently received Thai nationality and with it, renewed hopes for the future.

Sai Nhamjoom working in a pineapple field in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
© ADRA/Aunthip Puttawong

Sai Nhamjoom’s mask hides a big smile.

“I cannot wait to show the world that I am Thai now,” he says with joy. At 24 years old, Sai has only recently obtained Thai nationality.

A keen football player, he plays as a midfielder in for his village team, “Sang Khon”. Until he can achieve his dream of being a professional player, he helps with his parents’ business: farming pineapple in his native hometown in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand.

Sai served as a community volunteer for a few months with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), UNHCR’s implementing partner in Chiang Rai. It was at ADRA that he learned about the processes for applying for citizenship.

“We have bought the land, but we don’t officially own it.”

Born and raised in Thailand to parents who are stateless, Sai and his family have long faced many challenges.

“We had problems whenever we travelled and moved around,” he explains. “If we wanted to travel across any province, we would need to ask for permission beforehand from government officials.”

His family’s lack of documentation also restricted their access to land and property. “The land that we’re currently living on is not under the name of anyone in my family, even though we’ve bought it. We can be asked to leave the land at any time.”

For Sai’s family, land is a means of subsistence and the risk of eviction without prior notice is stressful.  “We have bought the land, but we don’t officially own it,” he reiterates.

Still, Sai has hope. “Now that I have Thai nationality, the land ownership can be rightfully transferred to my name.”

Sai acquired his citizenship in June 2021 under Article 7 bis Paragraph 2 of Thailand’s Nationality Law. He started his application in 2019 after a neighbour introduced him to ADRA’s work for the first time. While serving at ADRA’s Mae Chan Service Point, he learned about nationality rights, access to citizenship and legal status law.

Thailand adopted a progressive nationality strategy in 2005 to address statelessness. Important reforms to Thailand’s nationality and civil registration laws in 2008, 2016 and 2019 have provided a route to restore nationality to those deprived of it, or unable to acquire it.

“I felt disheartened to hear this kind of bullying since I was born in Thailand, and I have the right to be a Thai.”

Sai recalls being bullied at school, where some other students would call him “Burmese” and “alien”.

“I felt disheartened to hear this kind of bullying since I was born in Thailand, and I have the right to be a Thai,” shares Sai.

He adds that these experiences also occurred outside of school. During town meetings, other stateless people were frequently stopped from speaking. Sai remembers the recurring message: “You are a stateless person; you are not Thai. There is no reason for you to speak.”

Since acquiring Thai nationality, Sai feels that he has gained a voice and wants to support his other family members to become Thai nationals, too. Despite the lengthy administrative procedures, his elder brother has also initiated his application. It has been pending due to delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sai has experienced firsthand the challenges that many stateless people have in navigating the application procedures. Explaining the difficulties in gathering the required documentation, including a criminal record check and evidence of having participated in national surveys, he says: “The documents are actually backlogged at different locations. The time needed for processing is very long, and some of the documents are difficult to obtain.”

Thailand continues to make efforts to reduce statelessness. In 2014, Thailand endorsed the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness, which seeks to end statelessness globally. The country also made several pledges during UNHCR’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness in 2019, during which governments and other key stakeholders came together to address how to reduce and eradicate statelessness.

UNHCR has also welcomed the recent 26 January 2021 resolution approved by the Thai cabinet, which should improve access to legal immigration status and permanent residency for registered long stayers who could not meet previous criteria set by Cabinet in 2010 for both forms of status.

As of June 2021, there are still 550,000 stateless people in Thailand. Nevertheless, over 100,000 have obtained nationality since 2005; Sai is delighted to be one of them.

Today, aware of how citizenship rights can drastically change one’s life, Sai is supporting his sibling and parents with their own applications. As a Thai national, Sai can realistically dream of going to watch his favourite football player, Lionel Messi, wherever he plays on the planet – though Sai is still heartbroken over Messi’s departure from FC Barcelona in favour of rival club Paris Saint-Germain.