Two weeks ago, three football players and their coach, who were rescued from the flooded Tham Luang cave last month, were granted Thai nationality and presented with ID cards in a ceremony hosted in Chiang Rai province.
While their new status as Thai citizens is a major victory for the boys and their coach, there are still thousands – 486,440 people to be exact – waiting in the shadows for the same outcome. Many have already submitted the documents necessary to file for legal status, but have been left waiting without progress for years.
In 2016, the Thai government endorsed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) #IBelong Campaign to end statelessness, pledging to attain zero statelessness by 2024. Thailand has over 480,000 registered stateless people according to UNHCR.
The Thai government has been commended by the UNHCR for passing several Cabinet resolutions that have better integrated the acquisition of Thai nationality for stateless persons. Although passing Cabinet resolutions eases the burden of applying for citizenship and catalyses attaining the 2024 campaign goal to end statelessness, it is crucial to make the citizenship application process more accessible for everyone who qualifies.
Lack of accessibility and knowledge when filing citizenship documents are the biggest obstacles faced by ethnic minorities seeking Thai nationality. Unlike the young footballers, the majority of Thailand’s stateless people do not have dedicated and knowledgeable people to assist them with navigating the complex filing processes for citizenship. Many of them are unaware of their rights and the legal processes required to obtain citizenship. As a result, for every one person that is granted citizenship, thousands remain stateless simply because no one is there to walk them through the process of applying.
Unless education and assistance in preparing citizenship applications backed by advocacy for each of the 480,000 minority stateless applicants is expedited, the goal to end statelessness by 2024 will fall short. To effectively eliminate statelessness among ethnic minorities, the government must empower all minority peoples to submit citizenship and legal status applications on their own.
The International Justice Mission (IJM) is grateful to the Thai government for allowing us to work both in supporting stateless minority people with their applications, as well as partnering with us to receive and process applications. This collaboration has paid off with more than 20,000 individuals being restored their full citizenship rights over the past 10 years. However, the task ahead is enormous. At the current rate, with 480,000 stateless people, it will take over 300 years to reach zero statelessness.
Investment in community educational training that equips dozens, rather than one or two trained individuals, to prepare and submit documents will expedite restoration of citizenship to meet the 2024 deadline.
The effectiveness of this strategy has been demonstrated through successful efforts to address statelessness in Mae Hong Son, a province with an especially high prevalence of stateless students. Last year, the Legal Status Network (LSN), a network composed of 32 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that aims to eliminate rights and status issues, collaborated with the government to restore citizenship to 3,777 stateless people.
In April, 18 government officials and NGO representatives in Mae Hong Son signed a memorandum of understanding with the LSN, ratifying a plan led by former governor Suebsak Iamvijarn to continue working together to spearhead the issue of statelessness. In June, Mae Hong Son was nominated for a Public Sector Excellence Award for its work to address statelessness in the Effective Change Category. Every stateless person whose citizenship is restored is empowered to live a more fulfilling life while contributing meaningfully to the Thai society and economy. The Thai government must continue to dedicate resources to secure legal status for the 480,000 who are stateless by 2024.
Khemachat is Chiang Mai Field Office Director of International Justice Mission, a global organisation that collaborates with governments to protect the poor from injustice, including human trafficking, statelessness and sexual violence.