The stateless classrom
(The article was published in the Bangkok Post on June 23, 2009)
By Nattha Keenapan
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, June 2009 – The large hall at Thaton Temple in Chiang Mai’s Mae Ai district has been turned into a makeshift classroom over the past few months. The mainly young students gathered here come from several different villages in Mae Ai district, but they all have one thing in common: statelessness.
Every other Sunday since last September, about 100 people have come to the temple to study laws related to civil registration and legal status – a subject they knew little about before but which is crucial to their future. Their teachers, law experts from universities and non-governmental organizations, guide them on how to apply for Thai nationality and other legal entitlements, such as permanent or temporary residence.
Their homework is to gather as many documents as possible to help prove that they qualify for Thai nationality or residence status in Thailand. By the end of the three-day course, they learn how to write an application to the local district office and how to follow up with local officials on securing their entitlements.
Statelessness – the lack of a nationality – remains a major problem in many parts of Thailand, especially in the northern provinces. An estimated two million stateless people live in Thailand, including some 400,000 indigenous and hill tribe people.
“It is very important that the children understand their own stateless situation and learn how they can address this situation,” said Amanda Bissex, Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Thailand. “The ‘stateless classroom’ is aimed at teaching them how to solve their problems by themselves.”
The ‘stateless classroom’ is part of a UNICEF-supported project which helps provide legal assistance to stateless residents in Mae Ai, where statelessness is common. The stateless problem in Mae Ai became well-known to the public in 2002, when a new district chief revoked the Thai nationality of 1,243 Mae Ai residents
Although nearly all of the Mae Ai residents who had their Thai nationality revoked have since regained it through the order of an administrative court, the problem of statelessness continues to affect the lives of countless others.
Many people are stateless because they lack the documents needed to prove their birth or origins. Some were born at home or in the remote areas, or were born to parents who were unaware of the need to register the child’s birth with the government. A large number of people in Thailand are also stateless due to their status as migrants and refugees, or because of discrimination due to their ethnic background.
People without Thai nationality can be denied access to health care or the right to receive an education. Since they often do not have basic identity documents, such as birth registration or an identification card, they are more vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and exploitation, face restrictions on travel and can find it difficult to address violations of their rights.
Pikul Loongton, 17, joined the stateless classes last September. Although the Thai government allows all children, including stateless and migrant children, to receive an education, Pikul is not happy about the prospects for her future even though she is an outstanding student.
“I get more and more worried as I grow up,” said Pikul. “It is a hassle to travel around because I have to ask permission from the authority every time I go outside the district. That makes it difficult for me to further my studies or to get a good job.”
Pikul was born in Thailand in 1991 to Shan ethnic parents who fled the violence in neighbouring Burma 37 years ago. When Pikul was born at a hospital in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district, the hospital did not provide her parents with any documents recording the birth.
The only document related to her birth that the family remembers having was her mother’s appointment for a pregnancy checkup at the hospital, which was lost long ago.
Today, Pikul lives in a run-down, one-story concrete house in Mae Ai district with her parents and two brothers, who are also stateless. The family earns 3,000 baht a month working for a Christian charity. The income is not nearly enough for a family of five, especially when none of them are covered by the healthcare subsidies provided for Thai citizens. Like many other stateless families, Pikul’s family is in debt to several hospitals in Chiang Mai.
Pikul’s first homework assignment from the stateless classroom was to find evidence to prove she was born in Thailand.
“My parents and I traveled back to the village where we used to live about five times to find and talk to the village head and the neighbors who knew about my birth.” Pikul said. “They signed a form stating that I was born here in Thailand.”
In February, the Chiang Dao District Office issued an official document that certified Pikul’s birth. It was the first document from the state that she has ever received, and the only one she has to try to claim her right to a Thai nationality.
Over the past century, Thailand has amended laws related to the right to Thai nationality several times. Nearly 100 years ago, anyone born in Thailand, even to non-Thai parents, was considered a Thai. But in 1972, as thousands of refugees poured into Thailand as a result of the Indochina conflict, the government revoked Thai nationality to those born to non-Thai parents. This affected the status of hundreds of thousands of people living in Thailand, especially many ethnic minority and hill tribe people.
The law was amended last year to redress the negative effects of the 1972 revocation. The current Nationality Act grants Thai nationality to those born to non-Thai parents in Thailand before 26 February 1992. Children born after the date can also apply for Thai nationality, but it is granted on a case-by-case basis.
“In the past, I never dared to go to the district office,” said Pikul, who is entitled to Thai nationality by law, and recently submitted her application to the district office. “But after I studied the law, I am now confident that I will get my Thai nationality.”
Inside the stateless classroom, where nearly all the children were born to non-Thai parents, students with similar legal status and eligibility are grouped together. Some children were born in Thailand but after 1992, while some are the children of migrant workers. Others were born outside Thailand but have lived here for more than a decade. Not all of them are entitled to Thai nationality.
“Each child has different challenges, and our job is not about getting every stateless person a Thai nationality,” said Wantanee Rungruangsapakul of Payap University’s Faculty of Law and the Project Director of UNICEF-supported Legal Assistance Center and the stateless classroom. “But it is about getting them a legal status they are entitled to so that they are recognized for their existence and are able to enjoy basic rights.”
Wiriya Na Thaton, a novice at Thaton Temple in Mae Ai, believes he is 17. Last month, he had his name registered with the district office. Although his status is yet to be determined, the identity card issued by the district office was the first official recognition for his existence.
“For many years I felt as if I was being detained because I didn’t dare go anywhere.” said Wiriya, who was once arrested but released after a friend guaranteed to the police that Wiriya was a novice at Thaton Temple. “I was always so afraid of being deported.”
People in Mae Ai have told Wiriya that he was born in Bangkok, but no one knows for sure where or when. Wiriya has never heard from his parents. He only knows that the abbot at Thaton Temple has been raising him since he was about two years old.
“I was told that a lady was looking after me before she gave me to the abbot,” said Wiriya “My homework is to find her or other witnesses who can certify my birth.”
Kaviporn Wilaiwan, 29, is perhaps the oldest in a group of students who are all migrant workers. She signed up for the class in order to learn whether her eight-year-old son, who was born in Thailand, was eligible for Thai nationality. But Kaviporn, who moved to Thailand from Lao PDR at the age of 14 to find work, ended up going through a verification process to re-establish her Lao nationality.
For migrant workers like Kaviporn, the goal is to get an identity with their home countries so that they can return home legally, said Wantanee, the Project Director.
The legal training being conducted in the stateless classroom is also beneficial in many ways for local authorities, said Chainarong Buniviratanakarn, Mae Ai District Chief.
“When people know their rights and their eligibility for nationality, they no longer ask for something that is impossible,” Chainarong said. “Their knowledge on legal status will also make our work easier and help reduce bribes and corruption.”
Legal experts on statelessness said many challenges remain. While the necessary laws and policies are in place, there is a lack of comprehensive understanding of them by many local officials and stateless people themselves, as well as large numbers of people who are totally unaware of their existence.
“Setting up mobile stateless classroom units like this one that could work in other communities that have large stateless populations would go a long way towards addressing these problems,” UNICEF’s Bissex said. “It would help build the capacity of the individuals themselves as well as that of their entire community.
Pikul, who has gained a great deal of confidence through addressing her own statelessness, is now determined to help her parents, younger brothers and friends gain legal status in Thailand.