Tucked away in rolling green mountains some 60 kilometres from northern Thailand’s bustling city of Chiang Mai lies an ethnic Akha and Lisu hill tribe village where Meepia Chumee lived in a constant state of uncertainty for more than 30 years.
Born to a mother with Thai nationality and a stateless father, she was abandoned as a baby and her birth was never registered, leaving her with no legal status in the country where she was born. She was raised by her grandmother and uncle, who were also stateless.
Thailand has a registered stateless population of more than half a million – one of the largest in the world. Nearly a quarter of them live in Chiang Mai. They are mostly members of indigenous ethnic minorities from the mountainous border areas. Being registered provides them with some access to education, work, and health care, although their ability to travel between provinces is limited. However, there are an unknown number of stateless people, like Meepia, who are unregistered and face additional challenges accessing their basic rights to education, work and health care.
Meepia was forced to leave school after second grade and later could only find labour-intensive farming work for which she received at most a hundred baht (less than US$3) a day. She was terrified to venture out of her village after being stopped at a police checkpoint and fined for not having an ID document. When her husband, who was also stateless, managed to gain citizenship, their children were able to claim nationality from their father, but not Meepia.
“It was extremely difficult,” she sighs. “Sometimes I felt disheartened and asked myself why I didn’t have the same things as everyone else.”
Thailand has endorsed the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024 and has gradually reformed its nationality and civil registration laws to make it easier for people to claim their citizenship and rights. Over 100,000 stateless people have acquired Thai citizenship since 2008. However, in practice, procedures are often difficult to access, bureaucratic and complex.
When Meepia was 30, by a stroke of luck, someone from her village met her mother in the nearby province of Chiang Rai. Without hesitation, Meepia seized on the chance to start the process of applying for nationality. She plucked up the courage to contact her mother and ask her to do the DNA test that would prove their relationship. She then gathered all the documents she had and travelled to the district office 17 kilometres away – a big risk as an unregistered stateless person.
But after three years of waiting, her application was not accepted and she was told to restart the process in her mother’s province, hundreds of kilometres away.
Meepia’s story travelled through her village and reached the ears of Meefah Ahsong – a community casework volunteer working for Legal Community Network (LCN) and Legal Advocacy Walk (LAW) – two grassroots NGOs which work alongside UNHCR in supporting people to navigate the process of applying for legal status and nationality.
“I’m illiterate. I knew enough to understand what certain documents were, but I didn’t really understand them 100 per cent,” says Meepia. “Meefah called me and told me that her organization could help.”
Meefah had been stateless herself and knew full well the struggles Meepia was facing. She is among around 20 to 30 community volunteers in ethnic villages across five of Chiang Mai’s districts who are the unsung heroes working to end statelessness in Thailand. All previously stateless themselves, they are nominated by other villagers and then trained by LCN and LAW on nationality laws, how to collect information, and how to work with government officials at district offices.
Meefah helped Meepia with her paperwork and accompanied her to the same district office, but this time with backup.
“Meefah told me to bring my mother along, so I called her to come,” Meepia recalled. “On the day, Meefah brought along my village elder, other volunteers in the NGO, and even officials from the Department of Provincial Administration, and I was able to be registered into the system.”
Meepia finally acquired her Thai citizenship in August this year at the age of 34.
Meefah describes helping others in her community to gain citizenship as “a blessing”.
“I’m happy that they have a new life, they have better work, and access to health coverage” she says. “I want stateless villagers to be more aware of the rights that they are entitled to.”
As for Meepia, she hopes her hard-won citizenship will open the door to job opportunities with the many resort hotels in the region, which would not hire her before without an ID. She also says her official status has given her newfound confidence.
“The day I held the Thai ID card in my hand, I felt happiness and massive relief. Even though I may not have money like others, I now have the same rights as them. I don’t have to live in fear anymore.”