Thailand has granted nationality to more than 18,000 people over the last three years, though overall the country remains home to the most stateless people of any country in the world.
United Nations officials said on Tuesday the gesture would represent only a fraction of the nearly 450,000 people documented as nationless in Thailand, about 4.2 percent of the total, based on a report by the United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR), Reuters reported.
"These figures really show the potential for ending statelessness in Thailand," Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, the UN refugee agency's representative in Thailand told Reuters.
Many of Thailand's stateless are from hill tribes, with ancestral ties to their territory and ethnically different from the Thai majority. Others are children of illegal migrants who fled to Thailand, particularly from Myanmar, Reuters reporte.
Worldwide, there are roughly 10 million people who do not officially have a country, many of whom are found in Asia and Africa. Nepal, Myanmar, and the Ivory Coast rank behind Thailand.
The UN said a stateless person was defined during an international convention as "someone who does not have a nationality of any country," also noting that "some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives."
The Southeast Asian country has maintained a large refugee populace for decades, with Burmese people flooding in to escape abuses under that country's military rule including forced labor and ethnic and religious violence. Native people from surrounding countries have also migrated to Thailand, often from regions near the border.
The announcement to grant Thai citizenship comes a year after the UNHCR released a plan to end statelessness across the world. The agency said children are often the most affected by the status because they can’t access schools and jobs and are frequently beset by human traffickers, and discrimination and fear they will be detained by authorities are prevalent.
“In the short time that children get to be children, statelessness can set in stone grave problems that will haunt them throughout their childhoods and sentence them to a life of discrimination, frustration, and despair,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement last year.
A UN report called “I am Here, I Belong: The Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness” examined the severity of the problem and found that children, and refugees in general, felt powerless, even “like a street dog,” while their status keeps them mired in a cycle of poverty.
The UN plan has the goal of ending statelessness by 2024. Whether Thailand can meet that deadline remains to be seen.
Even with a law on the books since 2008 intended to address the problem of statelessness there has so far been little movement by the Thai government, while political upheavals including a 2014 military coup has further compounded that situation.
"The biggest difficulty I come across is corruption and officials themselves not being familiar with the law, and not wanting to be familiar with the law," said Fongchan Suksaneh, a legal adviser in Thailand representing the stateless, told Reuters. "When you come up against that mindset, that makes me pessimistic that they'll be able to accelerate and that they're going to meet the deadline."
The UNHRC said it would lend financial and logistical support to the Thai effort, including the possibility of repatriating the refugees to their home countries should conditions improve, citing similar programs in other country’s such as Ivory Coast, where more than 12,000 refuges have been repatriated since 2014.
[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated who and when stateless people were granted nationality in Thailand. The initiative by the Thai government has already taken place.]