The importance of being Thai: giving citizenship where citizenship is due

Pim Kemasingki investigates the struggles of ethnic minorities and stateless people living in Thailand as they strive for Thai citizenship.

By | Wed 1 Mar 2017

ภาษาไทย คลิกที่นี่

My dad lost his wallet a month ago. We talk about going down to the municipality to get him another ID card, but I’ve been busy. There’s no rush; whenever we both have an hour, we’ll pop down and get it done. In the meanwhile, what’s the big deal, right?

For hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities or stateless people living in Thailand, not having an ID card is a huge deal, perhaps the biggest of their lives. Without an ID card you can’t own land, take out a loan, start a business, get married, receive free education and healthcare, travel, vote and a myriad of other rights we take for granted every single day. Not only that, you face discrimination and injustice from people willing and ready to take advantage of your vulnerability, since, for the government, you do not exist as you have no legally registered documents. To add insult to injury, most of the half a million people currently waiting for their citizenship to be approved were born in Thailand and have had ancestors living here for hundreds of years. These are not foreign-born migrants or refugees, but Thai minority hill tribe members. Yet, not only are they not considered Thai until they receive that crucial blue Thai citizenship ID card, they also face daily prejudice.

It is a complex issue faced by Thailand’s northern minority ethnic groups, and one which a cluster of non-government organisations (NGOs) called Legal Status Network (LSN) is working closely with our government to solve. Finally.

“Our NGO started working in Thailand in 2000, focusing on issues of human trafficking,” explained Khemachat Saksakunmongkhon, Director of International Justice Mission (IJM) Chiang Mai, one of the over thirty NGOS in the LSN. “It didn’t take us long to realise that most victims of sex trafficking had issues with their nationalities. They did not have the Thai government issued citizenship cards. These people were in the low economic spectrum and their lack of status made them vulnerable to exploitation. As of 2007 we have therefore primarily focused our efforts on helping people register and claim their rightful citizenship and the Thai government issued ID card. According to UNESCO, the number one factor for hill tribe women and girls being trafficked is their lack of legal status.”

There are about 12 million stateless people worldwide and about one in five live in Thailand where there are an estimated one million hill tribe people living, with 400,000-600,000 eligible for citizenship while the remainder are either ineligible or have already attained it. It’s hard to count people who don’t legally exist. There is also a large number of refugees living in camps or working illegally all over the nation. The good news is that the government announced in December 2016 that it aims to end statelessness in Thailand permanently by 2024. And while there are great strides being made towards this goal, thanks in large part to the hard work and advocacy with the government by LSN, this is an ambitious goal.

“As an alien, which is the legal status of all who do not hold Thai citizenship, you do not have basic rights,” explained Khemachat, whom himself only received citizenship at the age of 10, along with members of his Akha family. According to Thai Immigration Law, up until an amendment was added on September 1st 2016 to expand to an entire province, stateless people were not able to travel outside their district without a special permit, one which is almost impossible to obtain. “There are two main types of aliens in Thailand,” he continued, “the first group are those who have been registered in a census by the Department of Interior and are accepted as living in the country with possible pathways to citizenship or at least a permanent resident status, while the other group have migrated from other countries.”

“Limitations for the stateless are debilitating. Without the freedom of movement beyond one’s district or province, their opportunities dwindle. Without an ID card employers can get away with not paying minimum wages, as such, career opportunities are generally restricted to labour and domestic works,” he continued.

“My life would’ve been very different if I had citizenship from when I was born,” said Athu, a hill tribe man whom IJM recently helped gain citizenship following a 14 year fight. “Because then, I would’ve been able to plan and dream about what I wanted to do in the future. Instead I have spent my life chasing after citizenship, using a lot of money, and losing out on so many opportunities.”

Another concern for Khemachat is also the lack of access to education. “One part of our work is to negotiate with universities who want to charge foreign student fees rather than local resident fees to those who are eligible for citizenship, but do not yet have it. We often have to prove to them that these students are on a path towards citizenship and ask them to treat them as Thai citizens, or they wouldn’t be able to afford higher education. They can hardly pay the Thai fees, let alone a foreign student fee which is many times higher.”

Khemachat was the second Akha tribe member to have attained a law degree in Thailand, something he did with a 15 year student loan he says he will finish paying off next year, an opportunity he is well aware many of his and other tribes members do not have.

“Each of these issues creates even more limitations,” Khemachat said. “So marginalised minority and stateless people are easily tempted to find other solutions, maybe outside the law. The law which has never empowered nor protected them.”

With such limitations on career opportunities, no wonder many stateless women fall victim to sex trafficking. It’s a vicious cycle; with no opportunities available, a woman is subject to a third party to secure jobs in a city, this person is a human trafficker who turns the woman into a victim. When she eventually sends money home, others are tempted to find opportunities, turning the victim into an agent of recruitment.
“Even if you want to end the cycle, when you yourself are illegal, you are afraid of accusing others of doing something illegal,” Khemachat added.

Righting a Long Wrong
“The good news is that the government responded to the international attention Thailand was receiving,” said Lucy McCray, Senior Communications Fellow at IJM, “and they have taken great strides to stem human trafficking. That is one of the reasons IJM switched our efforts to focus on the root of sex trafficking, citizenship rights.”

“With the right documents, the process from application to citizenship should be three months,” explained McCray. “Once district offices receive the application forms, they then have to send the approved documents to Bangkok to receive the 13 digit ID number, which, once received, will allow local officials to issue an ID card. But some applications have taken 10-15 years. This is mainly because in the past district officers were afraid of being held accountable for any bad decisions. District officers’ confusion about the law frequently leads to the refusal in acceptance of citizenship applications. While the punishment for approving ineligible citizenship application can result in the officers’ dismissal, there is no punishment for inaction. This fear of reprisal can lead to applications sitting on officers’ desks for years as most would rather err on the side of safety. They are also, of course, overburdened and many simply don’t have the man power to process so many documents. Of course there are also opportunities for corruption, as there is in every country. Then there are people who simply don’t have the literacy, education, or documentation to properly apply. On top of that, hill tribes are often seen as socially and culturally not deserving, so the ID card becomes almost unattainable, even though it is crucial, as it not only accesses benefits and entitlements, but also represents acceptance.”

Recently, LSN focused its efforts on Mae Hong Son where for the past four years none of the 15,000 applications for citizenship had been processed.

“Amazingly Mae Hong Son got a new governor in September of last year, one who had worked with IJM before when he was a deputy governor of Tak,” said McCray. “He has pledged to clear the entire backlog in one year and to achieve that he has asked LSN to step in to help process the applications. As of the end of 2015 there were 43,400 registered stateless people in the province, so there is much work to be done yet.”

Taking the Fight to the Top
The work of IJM and other similar groups is challenging. They work on national level policies as well as individual cases which are referred to them, often spending years on one case, such as Somchai’s, who is now a very happy 17 year old boy.

Somchai was born in a hospital in Tak Province, to a mentally ill mother who was found wandering the streets. The staff at the hospital registered his birth at the municipality office but being unable to determine the nationality of his mother due to her severe condition, left her nationality as blank. His mother was sent, and remains, in a Bangkok psychiatric hospital and Somchai was taken to a children’s home here in Chiang Mai where he grew up. As he grew older he began to understand and become dejected that he not only didn’t have a Thai citizenship, but he didn’t even have a surname. A Christian home who was sympathetic to his cause asked to take him in, reaching out to IJM for assistance.

“We nearly gave up on this case as it was so hard because it was so unique,” explained Khemachat. “Being an orphan born in Thailand should have been enough to have gained him citizenship, but because his mother’s nationality couldn’t be determined, and she was found at a border town, he stood in limbo. So, in 2015, along with other members of LSN and many other agendas needing addressing, we took him to Bangkok to meet the Department of Interior. The LSN managed to get Bangkok to issue a letter to the municipality office saying that he must receive citizenship, asking them to amend his mother’s nationality on the birth certificate. However, the municipality still didn’t dare make a decision and said that they wished to discuss it further. The fact that he didn’t have a surname was a problem. So our lawyer who had been working his case offered him the use of her surname. This January his citizenship was finally approved after a six year battle.”

“I remember seeing him just after he had his ID card issued,” smiled McCray. “He told me that at school he had always worn a jacket over his uniform, whatever the temperature, because he was ashamed that he only had his first name stitched onto his shirt. ‘Now, I am going to take off my jacket and show everyone!’ he told me with pride.”

An Obstacle Course to Citizenship
The challenges for IJM, LSN and indeed the government are that each case comes with its own set of unique issues and the process of checking documents can be extremely time consuming, requiring huge amounts of leg work. LSN teams are often embedded in district offices, helping to clear backlogs, while others have to travel to remote areas to find witnesses to testify. Others yet must fight for rights in the courts while pushing for policy change on a national scale.

“The formation of LSN has been crucial to our works,” continued Khemachat. “As one small NGO of 22 staff we can only do so much, but as part of a network with donors including governments around the world, we have power to negotiate. Some of us work on citizenship issues, others on other issues affected by citizenship such as sexual abuse and shelters, a third group comprises the academia and then there are the village or community groups and their members on the ground. It is very effective.”

Dropping Our Attitudes
Attitudes are changing, said all members of the IJM team I spoke to. Government officers are beginning to see that these people are not dangerous illegals sneaking across our border to take advantage of our supposed largess and cause trouble, but are in fact as Thai as the rest of us, separated by mere culture or language and just as deserving as being treated by authorities with the same respect and efficiency as any other Thai citizen.

“A 79 year old Akha woman called Meeyur lives in Chiang Rai by the Burmese border,” McCray said. “She moved to a village in Thailand as a teenager and says that she never really even knew or cared whether she was in Thailand or Myanmar, not understanding the concept of a border, and only knowing that she belonged in the village where she lived. She married another tribes member who had citizenship and they had many children. Thirty years ago she applied for citizenship. Her application was approved and a letter sent to Bangkok for her ID number. It was an inefficient response from the government, but local officials said that the number was never sent from Bangkok. They would release ID numbers 2-4 times a year and she would eagerly check in, only to be disappointed. In the meanwhile she struggled to get healthcare, saying that government hospitals treated her appallingly and she would try to save money to go to private hospitals when things got severe. When we took on her case we went to her district office only to find that they had long turned the system digital, which meant that she must resend her approval to Bangkok. She also had to find two witnesses who were at least 15 years older who could prove that she had been living in that district all that time. At her age, that was impossible. So we spent a lot of time talking to the officials and explaining the unique situation to them. It took a lot of persuasion, but we convinced them to allow her similar-aged childhood friend as well as her husband to sign an affidavit as witness and we expect her to be fully legal this October. After thirty years!”

IJM utilises all resources at their disposal to help the stateless gain citizenship. A 15 year old Akha girl, Sarai, lives in an orphanage in Chiang Rai because her mute and deaf mother is unable to care for her and her Thai father abandoned her. The divorce was acrimonious and the father wanted nothing to do with either his daughter or ex-wife. Happily, the same IJM lawyer who gave her surname to Somchai had grown up in the same orphanage and decided to take on Sarai’s case. It took many tries, but she convinced the father to donate a sample of his DNA. She then found a foreign sponsor to pay the 10,000 baht fee for a DNA test, and the happy result is expected in the next few months. If it is proven that Sarai’s father is indeed a Thai national, then she will have automatic citizenship.

“Every client has a unique set of problems and every person has different documentations which must be interpreted under a huge and complex set of laws. We also get the hard cases as people only come to us when they can’t solve their own problems,” explained McCray.

“I have worked at many NGOs,” Armin Sukkasemsakun, another member of the IJM team shared. “Our staff go deep when dealing with the government, working with them from the top policy making levels in the capital, to the smallest district offices. We also do deep investigation, sometimes spending years and years on a case. And then we have to often be creative and think of new solutions. Importantly we take a case and see it to the end, we don’t abandon anyone who is eligible for citizenship.”

IJM had a record year last year, having processed an impressive 3,290 applications, overshooting their annual target of 800-900 applications.

As I drove out of the IJM offices, I thought of my father’s lost ID card. How he had flown to Thailand from England nearly fifty years ago. How he had fallen in love with my mother, a general’s daughter, a general who gave him his surname when he decided to apply for his citizenship. How he had discovered that the man who would approve of his Thai citizenship was wearing his old prep school tie. How they had shaken hands after an affable chat about boarding school. How he had responded in English, “yes sir” when asked by the fellow alum whether he spoke Thai, as is required for citizenship. And how that was that, he was granted Thai citizenship. I then thought of how losing the ID card will likely inconvenience him for an hour next week when I finally take him to apply for another one. And how so many thousands far more deserving people living in the mountains and plains around us are still struggling, sometimes for decades, for all the privileges that my family, and most of us, have taken for granted by having that one blue card with its 13 digits in our wallets.

All names have been changed at IJM’s request.


Related Article: Migrant Lives Matter: The challenges and prejudices faced by Shan migrant workers