Until he received his Thai citizenship and identification card this month, life was very difficult for 17-year-old Joe as a stateless person.
“I couldn’t go to places I wanted to go, though the rest of my family could. Police always stopped me from leaving my village since I didn’t have anything to prove I was Thai,” he says.
Joe was born to a couple belonging to ethnic Akha hill tribe in the northern mountainous province of Chiang Rai. At the time of his birth both his parents were still waiting to be confirmed as Thai citizens following a government ensus conducted in their village four years ago. As a result, when his parents became officially recognized as Thai citizens years later in 2002, Joe still did not exist on government records and was in effect rendered ‘stateless’ in his own country of birth.
Joe’s case is just one of the some 52,000 people in Chiang Rai who have been left stateless by inadequate registration procedures for birth and citizenship. Living in Chiang Rai further compounds the disadvantages already faced by thousands of stateless people. The town is a busy corridor of the Golden Triangle between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – notorious for drug trafficking and illegal human migration. This means stateless people regularly endure interrogation at various police checkpoints and have to prove their valid status.
According to government estimates there are overall 1 million stateless people in Thailand, which shares porous borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Many stateless people in Thailand are born to parents from Myanmar or migrating ethnic minorities from China. They may have not had Thai citizenship when their children were born, but over the years some gain citizenship after being registered through Census surveys. Long gaps between Census surveys, which in the past have stretched to decades, have meant a generation of children born in this period go unaccounted for and become effectively stateless.
Children like Joe are little choice but to spend formative years of their life deprived of citizenship and basic human rights to education, healthcare, movement and employment despite having parents with Thai citizenship. Already poor, Joe’s parents had to pay for his education while other children confirmed as citizens got it for free. As a result Joe had to work after school as a construction worker to supplement his family’s income.
“My friends always mocked me for not being Thai as I didn’t have a Thai ID card. I was so furious with those insults, but what they said was true,” Joe recalls his experience in school.
However, Joe finally has a reason to smile. He has recently been granted the Thai citizenship following a successful DNA test that established his link to his parents for official purposes. This was made possible as part of an initiative by the global child rights organisation Plan International, which has worked with communities in Thailand for 30 years.
Plan, in partnership with local NGOs, is funding families and children in Chiang Rai to participate in a state-sponsored DNA testing project. The project aims to prove genetic ties between parents, who were given Thai citizenship after they gave birth to their children, and their children who weren’t registered at their birth. Plan’s subsidy means the families pay only one-eighth (1000 Thai Bahts) of what they are supposed to pay for DNA tests.
Plan also runs a legal clinic project for children and youth who were born to Thai parents but don’t have birth certificates, teaching them their rights and the government channels they must navigate to apply for citizenship.
“Identity is children’s first right,” said Plan Thailand country director Maja Cubarrubia.
“We are very proud in connecting the people who are in dire need of assistance to existing services provided by the government and other civil society organisations.”
Joe is one of 400 people Plan has subsidised in the DNA project over the past two years. Plan will support another 600 over the next three years.
“Three months of waiting for the result was like three years, but it was worth waiting for,” Joe said, as the result show DNA matched his parents’. He then applied for a Thai ID card and just got one this month.
“Since I’ve been given this ID card, I can now proudly say I am a citizen of Thailand. I had not been able to say that before,” said Joe, who also changed his family name to sound more Thai and is applying for a driving license to be able to travel more freely.