Birth registration campaigns help Thailand's "rootless" kids
By Robert Few
CHIANG RAI, July 2006 – Although she looks about 15 years old, Nida doesn’t know exactly how old she is or even where she was born. She has no legal documents, and just about all she remembers of her childhood is that after her mother died and her father was locked up for selling drugs, her aunt sold her to a traveling salesman.
The salesman eventually abandoned her outside a school in Chiang Rai, a Thai province bordering Myanmar. “We were not poor, so I don’t know why they sold me,” Nida said sadly, speaking to a visitor at her school, which caters mostly to children with no citizenship papers. “Maybe they didn’t want to look after me.”
All that is known of Nida’s past are the few details she can provide and her last name, which is Akha, suggesting she is a member of Thailand’s second-largest ethnic minority group. With no documentation, and no memory of where she was born or who her parents are, Nida is left in a legal limbo with no country to call her own.
“We call these children ‘lai lak ngao’ (”rootless”),” said Professor Wantanee, who runs the UNICEF-supported birth registration campaign at Payap University in Chiang Mai. “With no information, it is very difficult to get the documents they need to acquire citizenship.”
But even when it can be easily proved that children were born in Thailand or have Thai parents, they are sometimes denied citizenship because their births are not registered. Many poorer families living in remote areas do not understand the importance of birth registration or are unable to get to the nearest government offices, and so their children do not have the documents they need.
This is the case for children in the Karen community of Baan Tha Rua, an remote village in Mae Hong Son, a mountainous province of isolated rural communities along Thailand’s northwestern border with Myanmar. The villagers here migrated from Myanmar some 40 years ago to work at a local mine. The mine has long since closed, and now they make a living collecting bamboo, which they sell for 1 baht a kilo (2.5 cents).
The road to the nearest government office is impassible by cars. The only options are to walk, which takes two days, or to pay 50 baht to travel by boat. But 50 baht means collecting 50 kilos of bamboo. To most, that seems like a lot of effort just to get a piece of paper from the government. “They don’t really understand the importance of birth registration,” said Wantanee.
But birth registration is vital because it is necessary to prove citizenship – and without citizenship, children are hugely disadvantaged. For a start, they are often rejected from schools. Although Thai schools are obliged by law to accept non-citizens, school officials, who worry about the extra burden of teaching children who may not be fluent in Thai and who may have different customs from the other students, sometimes claim that their schools are full.
Even if stateless children do manage to finish school, they are not given a graduation certificate and therefore find it hard to get work beyond manual labour at below the minimum wage. They are also prevented from accessing cheap healthcare under the national social security system and legal protection in cases of abuse or exploitation, such as child trafficking.
All this makes programmes like Payap University’s birth registration campaign essential. The university has already held one “Stateless Children’s Day”, and has forwarded the names and details of 1,000 children without citizenship papers to the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor to raise awareness of the problem among senior officials.
They are also working to raise awareness and capacity among the children themselves.
“We have a very limited budget, and the cases are spread out over such a wide area that the best thing we can do is give the children the knowledge and the skills they need to help themselves and their communities,” said Wantanee. “If we tell them what they need to do, they can go to the district offices themselves, and by enlisting the help of their teachers and communities, they can get their own documentation.”
Watanee said the programme also is pushing for more government staff to be assigned to dealing with citizenship cases so that appeals can be processed more quickly and given the attention they deserve.
In the meantime, the stress of legal limbo for children like Nida is difficult to imagine. The future seems so insecure. Nida has 15 baht a day for lunch, but she chooses to eat nothing in order to save money for some future disaster. She’s not sure what that might be, but she wants to be prepared for it. In the meantime, she goes hungry and, as a result, often faints when she runs. Her friend, Eenang Laycher, feels the same.
“I don’t understand anything I study because I am so worried about citizenship,” Eenang said. “There is nothing else in my head.”