'I felt like I was being reborn'
After growing up stateless, Yutthachai Jaju is now helping to end statelessness in northern Thailand's Chiang Rai province.
As of December 2020, there were over 480,000 stateless people registered with the Thai government. Following reforms to Thailand’s nationality and civil registration laws, and the adoption of a progressive nationality strategy to address statelessness, over 100,000 stateless people have acquired Thai nationality since 2008. Those still affected by statelessness are mostly members of ethnic minorities living in mountainous regions who do not hold any identity documents.
I was born in Thailand and have always felt an attachment to Thailand and the Thai people. I have never lived anywhere else. But because my family was stateless, I was stateless, too. We didn’t have Thai nationality, or the nationality of any other country.
I am an ethnic Lahu. My family is originally from Mae Hong Son, in northern Thailand, though we moved to the neighbouring province of Chiang Mai when I was a child. In the northern part of Thailand, many stateless people are from the Lahu, Akha and Lisu tribes. Growing up, I had a 13-digit identification number given to me by the Thai government, but not Thai nationality.
I became a Thai citizen as a teenager, when I was in Grade 8 or Grade 9. Before receiving my nationality, I lived in a state of constant worry. I felt scared whenever I happened to see police officers.
"It hurt that other people were able to do this and that, while I had limitations on my rights."
I also faced problems in my education. When I completed Grade 6 and was about to go on to secondary school, I could not enroll because I didn’t have nationality. I asked my teacher for advice about what to do. He advised me to ask my uncle, who was a Thai national, to speak to the school on my behalf. After he vouched for me, I was eventually allowed to continue my studies.
It hurt that other people were able to do this and that, while I had limitations on my rights – even though I was also born here in Thailand. I felt that everything was complicated and difficult, and that anything I tried to do would be blocked by obstacles.
I vividly remember that day in 2000 when my father told me and my siblings that we were going to receive nationality. We all felt very happy and were smiling as we headed over to the District Office to get our new Thai ID cards.
My father had applied for the whole family to become Thai citizens after my uncle had gone through the process. My parents had not tried to apply for nationality before then; the importance of officially having nationality wasn’t previously clear to them. They also didn’t have the knowledge of how to apply and had to travel very far from our house to submit the application papers.
When I became a Thai national, I felt like I was being reborn, like I was receiving a new life. As a stateless person, it was like being in a state of darkness, of blurriness. After I received Thai nationality, it felt like there was light. I felt like there were no more obstacles in my way, and I began to feel at ease wherever I went.
"I no longer worry about being stopped by the police."
Ever since I got my Thai ID card, I no longer worry about being stopped by the police. And when it came to education, the benefits were just as clear. After I completed secondary school, I had the opportunity to take out a government loan to pursue a university degree. If I hadn’t had nationality, I wouldn’t have had access to this right.
Today, I’m proud to be working as a Community Mobilizer at ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. Around the areas where I work in Chiang Rai, there are people who remain stateless.
A main challenge is that many stateless people don’t have information about the nationality application process. As a result, they don’t have the confidence to contact the relevant authorities and follow the process themselves.
This is where my colleagues and I come in. We support stateless people to apply for nationality by helping them to prepare their documents. We encourage them to submit a nationality application, and if they have trouble communicating with officials (as some older stateless people do, as they do not speak Thai fluently), we accompany them to the District Office and help to interpret for them. We then follow up on the case on their behalf.
We also try to inform stateless people about what rights they have, for example in relation to important matters like education, travel and work.
Even though challenges remain, I have seen through my own experience that ending statelessness is possible. If we all work together – from the government and civil society to academia and the mass media – we can all contribute to resolving this problem. If we collaborate and keep in mind that we all have the same goal, we can ensure that no one is left stateless.