Overcoming statelessness in Thailand one case at a time
CHIANG RAI, Thailand – When Sawitree* turned seven, she tried to apply for her Thai nationality card.
But despite having been born in the Southeast Asian nation she could not meet the application requirements as her Thai father could not be found.
“I felt like I had no future, no options. It was like a dead end,” says Sawitree, now 12, of the state of limbo that she found herself in.
Her mother and father separated when she was barely a year old. Her step-father went to district offices in Chiang Rai and Bangkok, unsuccessfully trying to get the right documents so that Sawitree could obtain an identity card showing that she was, in fact, a Thai national.
“I felt like I failed her for not being able to obtain the card. Without it, she did not have many choices,” says her step-father, referring to the limitations on freedom of movement and higher educational opportunities that stateless people face.
“I felt like I had no future, no options. It was like a dead end.”
When staff with the Adventist Relief and Development Agency (ADRA), a local NGO partner working with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, assisted the family in resolving the case, they finally obtained the documentation they needed, and in mid-October, Sawitree received her national identity card.
“I was very happy the day I got to hold the card,” she says with a smile. Asked how having a document showing her Thai nationality would change her life, she says, “I will continue to study. I want to become a nurse, to help people who are sick and injured.”
The young Thai student’s plight is far too common. There are around 10 million people worldwide who are denied a nationality. UNHCR works with governments around the world to identify, prevent, and resolve their situations, and in 2014 launched the global #IBelong Campaign that seeks to end statelessness over a decade.
In Thailand alone, there are currently 438,821 people registered as stateless. Many stateless people and those at risk of statelessness in Thailand come from areas where national borders have changed, leaving their nationality in question. Some belong to “hill tribes” living in remote areas with limited access to information about nationality procedures and who, in the past, lived without registration or identity documentation.
The Thai government has pledged to attain zero statelessness by 2024. Earlier this year, it requested all districts in the country to identify and issue legal status – which could range from Thai nationality to permanent or temporary residence – to eligible stateless students in its database. This move could benefit up to 65,000 students like Sawitree, who might otherwise struggle to pursue higher education.
To help address the challenge, UNHCR has been working with the Thai authorities and, most recently with ADRA, to open “service points” in different schools in Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang and Mae Chan districts.
Stateless students and their families living there have been able to obtain nationality-related information and eventually lodge applications for birth registration, nationality, permanent residency and related civil status and identity documentation.
The project has engaged government officials at the district level, school principals, community leaders as well as local civil society, who have also been working on the issue of statelessness. The target – to prepare 10,000 applications by the end of 2016.
“I will continue to study. I want to become a nurse, to help people who are sick and injured.”
The Chiang Rai project has also helped Manee, 39, a single mother with two daughters from the Lahu hill tribe. She lives and works on a farm, but in the past as a stateless person could not travel freely outside of her district for work or to visit relatives.
When she tried to apply for nationality, she faced several challenges. Born in a remote area, her birth was not registered and she found it difficult to get through the administrative procedures without assistance.
“Language was always a problem,” she says. “I also did not understand the process. It became simpler when I received help from ADRA officers without any charges.”
With this support, she acquired Thai nationality last month. She says this has brought her peace of mind. She looks forward to exercising her full rights, including the right to travel to see her cousins, and access public services that will also benefit her children. She also feels empowered to be more active and vocal in village activities.
“Now that I have my card, I hope my children’s turn will come,” says Manee. “They need to have DNA tests to obtain Thai nationality so that they can travel to places they couldn’t before.”
*Names of all stateless people have been changed for protection reasons.