Seeking citizenship: Thailand holds out hope for millions of undocumented

Some 15 million people worldwide are denied basic rights because they lack legal nationality. Thailand, which has one of the world's largest stateless populations, is trying to tackle the problem. 

Jacob Baynham
Wakuloo, 16, stands with his 82-year-old great aunt, Nothedu Namrueangloed, outside her home in Ban Gong Soon Tai, Thailand on Jan. 7. Wakuloo is among millions of stateless people worldwide. He hopes that his great aunt, a Thai national, can help him gain Thai citizenship.

Every school day starts patriotically in this dusty village with no electricity in the mountains near Myanmar. The students gather in the school’s open-air first floor to sing the Thai national anthem. One of them then raises the Thai flag into the wood smoke and fog still clinging to the canopy of the jungle.

It’s a ritual repeated each morning across Thailand. But this school is different: more than a quarter of these 440 students are not Thai citizens. In fact, they’re not citizens of any nation; they’re stateless, mostly born into ethnic minority communities that straddle Thailand’s remote border regions.

Millions of people worldwide are in the same situation – undocumented and unrecognized, even in the countries where they were born and raised.

Without Thai citizenship, these children can’t travel freely, get scholarships for college, access affordable healthcare, vote when they turn 18, or receive social security when they retire.

“They become a second-class population,” says Kokiatti Somsa-ad, the school’s principal. “Is it the mistake of the children? They didn’t choose to be born stateless.”

One of these children is Wakuloo, a 16-year-old boy who likes to strum Thai country songs on the guitar. Wakuloo, who only has one name, is an ethnic Karen and was born in Thailand, in a rice-growing village 15 miles away. His parents and grandparents were born there, too. Like his parents, he has no birth certificate.

Even if he did, his nationality wouldn’t be guaranteed; Thailand has no birthright citizenship and his parents are stateless, too. According to a recent study, more than half a million ethnic minorities here are caught in this bind.

In 2008, Thailand changed its nationality law, creating a path to citizenship for some of its stateless people. It’s among several countries that have amended laws and policies over the past decade to document those who fall through the cracks. The UN’s refugee agency says these changes have led to 4 million people acquiring citizenship around the world.

A bunk and a dream

A teacher says Wakuloo is a talented student. But his opportunities in life are diminishing at an age when they should be expanding. Inside the stuffy dorm room that he shares with 40 other students, he shows a reporter his bunk. This will be his home until he finishes school. What happens next is less clear.

“I want to be a teacher,” he says. “But I’m worried about my future. If I don’t have an ID card when I graduate, I won’t be able to study more.”

There’s a glimmer of hope – an 82-year-old great-aunt is a Thai national and could be the key to his citizenship. First, Wakuloo must compile the right paperwork. Then he’ll have to prove they’re related. The process can take years, and could be complicated if his great-aunt dies before it’s finished. But citizenship would change everything.

“I’m always thinking about it,” Wakuloo says.

A child born every 10 minutes

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion estimates that there are more than 15 million stateless people worldwide. Unable to study, get jobs, buy land, or even marry, stateless people are statistically poorer, unhealthier, and more vulnerable to exploitation than those with citizenship. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a child like Wakuloo is born into statelessness at least every 10 minutes.

Discrimination, changes in nationality laws, and shifting borders can all exacerbate the issue. The breakup of the Soviet Union, for example, left hundreds of thousands of people stateless in former Soviet republics. Decades of persecution in Myanmar spurred thousands of stateless Rohingya to flee to other countries. And Europe is home to an unknown number of stateless Roma.

Even when countries try to register their stateless populations, many stateless people go unrecorded. Government-supplied statistics can only account for about 3.5 million stateless people worldwide. According to the UNHCR, 6.5 million more are in the shadows. Thailand, for example, counts 443,862 in its database of registered stateless people, which is the number the UNHCR reports. Local nonprofits say the actual number exceeds 3 million, including stateless refugees and migrant workers.

'Statelessness is inhumane'

In 2014, the UNHCR launched a campaign to eradicate statelessness by 2024. The #IBelong campaign aims to publicize the issue and pressure countries to identify and protect stateless people, and to resolve their lack of citizenship. The campaign will deploy more than 20 specialists to help countries address their specific stateless populations. 

“Statelessness can mean a life without education, without medical care, or legal employment,” reads the campaign’s open letter, signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actress Angelina Jolie, and others. “Statelessness is inhumane.”

Thailand has one of the largest stateless populations in the world, behind only Myanmar and Ivory Coast, although many countries lack reliable statistics. For decades people have migrated to Thailand for its relative prosperity and stability, and to escape violence or poverty. Many of them are now stateless.

“Geographically, there’s often been a lot of movement into and through Thailand from neighboring countries,” says Peter Trotter, the senior protection officer for UNHCR in Thailand. “Borders are a creature of government, and people don’t necessarily think in terms of lines on a map.”

Mr. Trotter says Thailand is doing more than many countries to register its stateless people, which is a critical first step. “Can it be faster? It can be faster in every country,” says Trotter. “But in Thailand it’s not a question of political will as much as infrastructure.”

Since the 2008 law revision, local nonprofits are scrambling to teach people how they can apply for citizenship. On the Thai-Myanmar border, one of the greatest barriers to applying for nationality is the region’s remoteness.

“Real people have their day-to-day lives,” Trotter says. “One of the challenges in accessing the process is accessing the office.”

Follow the family tree

Fortunately for Wakuloo, the process came to him. In January he met with lawyers and advocates of the Legal Status Network Foundation, a group of 32 Thai nonprofits that organized a four-day registration drive in Ban Po Sor. People traveled from three villages to seek advice about gaining Thai citizenship.

Wakuloo waited in line with dozens of villagers before presenting his case to Santiphong Moonfong, the foundation’s director. At a wooden table in an open-air community center, Mr. Moonfong interviewed Wakuloo and accumulated a stack of paper an inch thick, including a family tree. The key to Wakuloo’s case, Moonfong says, lies at the top of that tree: the great-aunt, who has a Thai nationality card. If Wakuloo can prove the relation, he might be eligible for citizenship. But first, Moonfong has to find her.

A Monitor reporter joined Moonfong on a bumpy ride to Wakuloo’s home village. A rutted, winding road is the only access, a slash of red clay through vine-choked jungle. A four-wheel-drive truck takes two hours to cover the 15 miles. “We’re inside Thailand,” Moonfong says from the front seat, “but we’re outside the map.”

Wakuloo’s village is surrounded by betel palms. Laundry hangs from lengths of bamboo, and an old woman sharpens a machete on a stone. Moonfong meets Wakuloo’s mother, who leads him past a pomelo tree to a wooden house on stilts with a foot-powered rice mill below, and two solar-powered bulbs inside.

Wakuloo’s great-aunt, Nothedu Namrueangloed, is squatting below a picture of the Thai king. A frail woman with few teeth, she’s dressed in a red woven Karen skirt with orange beads around her neck and silver bracelets on her wrists. Moonfong asks why no one in her family has applied for citizenship earlier. “We don’t have a car,” she says. “We don’t have money. It’s a long way to walk.”

She shows Moonfong her ID card. The lamination is falling off, but it’s tangible proof of her citizenship. She confirms that Wakuloo is her great-nephew. She says she wants to help him and his parents get citizenship. And she says if necessary she would travel all the way to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand and an eight-hour car ride away, to prove their relation with a DNA test. The test would cost about $135 – an exorbitant fee for the family.

Moonfong is confident this relation to a Thai citizen will strengthen Wakuloo’s application, and help Wakuloo’s parents get citizenship, too. “If we look at the law, the law says Wakuloo is Thai,” Moonfong says. “And if he gets Thai nationality, he will get the opportunity for education, travel, a job, equality, and a better life.”

How to officially exist

Granting Wakuloo citizenship would also benefit Thailand, Moonfong argues. People who don’t officially exist are easy prey for human traffickers and criminal networks. (Statelessness can be the single greatest risk factor for Thai ethnic minority women to be trafficked or exploited.) Giving them a nationality gives them legitimacy, equality, and opportunity. “We’re not just helping people, we’re developing our country,” Moonfong says.

Ultimately, however, the fate of Wakuloo’s citizenship application rests in the hands of the district office in Mae Sariang. Ethnic groups in Thailand often report poor treatment in district offices like this. Discrimination, and linguistic and cultural barriers complicate the process, not to mention the long, costly journey to get there.

But Wakuloo is hoping he’ll succeed. “If they agree, they’ll sign it,” he says, “and I’ll get Thai nationality.” 

He has faith in the law, and love for his country. And until he graduates, he will be at the Ban Po Sor school each morning, singing the national anthem alongside his Thai friends, pledging allegiance to a country that hasn’t yet pledged its allegiance to him.

“I’m proud of Thailand when I sing it,” he says. “I feel I was born in Thailand, so I should be a Thai person, too.”

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