Reaching out to the people languishing in nowhere land

A new photo exhibition and information drive are striving to help some of Thailand's 500,000 stateless and raise awareness of their rights to citizenship under the 2008 Nationality Act

Fongchan Suksaneh says she was in a "quasi-stateless" situation for 25 years and applied numerous times for citizenship, before finally receiving it following promulgation of the fourth Nationality Act in 2008. "I was told many times, 'We don't need people like you. Go to a different country!' ... I wasn't considered a Thai person even though I couldn't tell the difference myself."

DESPERATE TO BELONG: Above, from left to right, a Bihari girl in Bangladesh, the Dalit people in Nepal and an ethnic Korean man with his Ukrainian wife.

LOOKING FOR A HOME: Clockwise, from right, stateless children in Sabah, Malaysia, a Rohingya woman and child, and a Rohingya man from Myanmar.

According to the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, there are still over 500,000 stateless people in Thailand, without the paperwork to claim citizenship in this country or any other. Of these, over 50,000 were born in Thailand but lack citizenship, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and without many of the freedoms, rights and privileges that citizens enjoy. They also face regular discrimination and prejudice.

Last Tuesday, the UN agency, along with Thailand's National Human Rights Commission, the Thai government and Stateless Watch Thailand, launched a five-day exhibition on the plight of stateless people around the world, "Nowhere People", by US photographer Greg Constantine, as well as a step-by-step practical handbook, Thai Citizenship through Section 23 of the Nationality Act. The new handbook is designed for potential citizens who want to know their rights, officials who may not know who falls under the Nationality Act or how to implement it, and other groups working to to give stateless people citizenship.

In 2008, Section 23 of the new Nationality Act essentially repealed the 1972 Revolutionary Party Announcement No337, or the Revolutionary Act, which revoked citizenship to those deemed a threat to national security, including many ethnic minorities in areas with communist insurgents.

Essentially the 2008 act provides citizenship to those born before Feb 25, 1992, if one of their parents was Thai, or if they were born in Thailand, unless their parents are deemed to have been temporary or illegal immigrants.

It also stipulates time frames for processing citizenship applications. Many applicants have complained of resistant or incompetent district or provincial officials who mislay applications or reject them in error.

Two formerly stateless women told us about their struggle to get Thai citizenship.

Muda Nawanat, subject of a Spectrum profile in July last year, is an ethnic Karen whose parents immigrated in 1967.

"Education, for me, was key in proving to everyone that I am as Thai as everyone else," says Ms Muda. "I might be stateless but I will never be effortless."

From Mae Hong Son's Sop Moei district, she lodged numerous applications over the years that were rejected or mislaid, and had to inform district officials herself of changes in the law and how to implement them. Following the passage of the fourth act in 2008, she was the first in her district to petition for citizenship, which was finally granted. She is currently helping other children in the same situation she was once in.

"Now I belong somewhere," she says.

Ms Fongchan, whose American parents immigrated 35 years ago and who provided the opening quote, was a "quasi-stateless person" for 25 years.

Born in Chiang Mai province, she had a nationality, "but it was of no effect on my daily life", she says.

For years she used her yellow house registration rather than blue ID card, and her citizenship applications were repeatedly rejected. In June 2008, she was finally issued a Thai ID card.

"My life has changed greatly since receiving Thai citizenship," she says. "Now I wish that all Thai people will see the value of this plastic card we call an ID, as well as be open to others with different backgrounds."

Amara Pongsapich, chairman of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission, says, "The success stories are Thai, even if they might not look Thai, or if they have a slightly different dialect."

He notes that he has much Chinese blood, but because this group is more accepted his path to citizenship was relatively easy.

"Human rights issues have to be solved not by use of force but by knowledge.

"Can anyone say they're 100% Thai?" he asks. "We're a heterogenous, multi-ethnic society made up of diverse peoples and cultures. There has been a paradigm for 100 years that Thailand only comprises one type of people. Breaking down this notion is key to breaking down hatred and divisions among people.

"I hope this book elevates the debate _ it's not only for those who might benefit from Section 23."

Venus Seesuk, also of the National Human Rights Commission and one of the main authors of the handbook, says that sometimes the notion of "national security" runs contrary to human rights.

He says that without the 1972 Revolutionary Act, those recently helped by Section 23 would already have been citizens. There have been some amendments and policies over the years revoking aspects of the Revolutionary Act, "but they didn't help everyone affected".

And there are still obstacles; some officials might not understand the changes, and some of the stateless might not understand their rights. One problem is that the Revolutionary Act automatically revoked nationality; there was no paper trail. There are other sources of conflict, such as whether those born in refugee camps were born in Thai territory, as well as debate over how long you have to live in Thailand before you qualify for citizenship.

"This is why we need this book _ so people understand how to process stateless persons," says Mr Venus.

ALL AT SEA: Rohingya boats.

Up to 100,000 people could potentially benefit, he adds. Around 35,000 people have already obtained citizenship through the revised Nationality Act.

''And any of them are eligible to become prime minister,'' he says, ''since they were born here and are Thai.''

Nevertheless, most of Thailand's 506,000 stateless people remain outside any version of the Nationality Act and more work needs to be done to address their plight. Thailand remains a non-signatory of the UN's conventions on refugees or the stateless, which would make it easier for the stateless to be helped and their paperwork processed or issued.

According to Dunnapar Tilakamonkul, associate protection officer (statelessness) at the UNHCR, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines who is considered stateless and establishes minimum standards of treatment. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness. These ''give countries the legal tools to identify and protect stateless people, as well as to prevent and reduce the problem''.

''Even without having signed the two conventions,'' she says, ''Thailand has taken some important steps to keep people from falling into the painful limbo of statelessness. It has revised its Nationality Act _ now in it's fifth revision _ and put in place a national strategy to resolve statelessness, the National Strategy on the Administration of Rights and Personal Legal Status of Persons.''

A GLOBAL ISSUE

An estimated 12 million in the world live without nationality, making them some of mankind's most vulnerable. Shifting borders, past migrations, displacement due to conflict and discrimination against minority groups are some of the reasons for statelessness. In many countries, stateless people can't register their marriages, get birth certificates for their children, open bank accounts, go to school, work legally, own property or travel freely _ things citizens with identity cards and passports take for granted.

''The biggest pain is really not being recognised by a place you truly believe you belong to, whether it's not being recognised by your neighbour, by the state or by the authorities,'' says Constantine, the photographer who has devoted over six years to chronicling the world's stateless.

Initially self-financed, his long project has captured the plight of stateless people around the world, among them the Bihari in Bangladesh, the Rohingya from Myanmar, stateless Sabah children in Malaysia, the Dalit in Nepal, hill Tamils in Sri Lanka, Nubians and Galjeel in Kenya, stateless groups in Ivory Coast, Crimean Tatars and ethnic Koreans in the Ukraine and ethnic Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

His work ''provides a human face to what many people might perceive as a dry political issue'', he says.

The situation in Thailand is still better than in many of the places he visited, he says, since the government has been addressing the issue and there is newspaper coverage of the plight of the stateless several times a year.

''In many other places it's not even spoken about.''

For Constantine, ''The denial of citizenship and statelessness is one of the most radical forms of injustice and it is one of the most silent, overlooked and underreported.''

It is also linked with a number of pressing issues such as forced migration, human trafficking, child labour and indentured servitude.

''This leaves stateless people as some of the most invisible, neglected and powerless people in the world.''

One of the aims of his project, he says, is to use photography as evidence to prove that the communities actually exist.

''Generations of illiteracy, abject poverty, absence of any form of political voice or representation and having been removed from the protection of the legal system, not to mention wearing years of stereotypes and prejudices against them ... overcoming all these challenges to where they're on as close to equal footing as other communities developmentally is essential to their overall sense of belonging and participation in greater society.

''I want this work to help make an invisible condition visible. I want it to help hold governments to account.''

The photo exhibition 'Nowhere People' ends today at 9pm, at the Eden Zone on the third floor of CentralWorld. To receive a Thai-language copy of the handbook 'Thai Citizenship through Section 23 of the Nationality Act', send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to UNHCR Thailand, c/o Statelessness Unit, 3rd Floor, United Nations Building, Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue, Bangkok, 10200.

SCHOOL’S OUT: Dalit children in Nepal tending buffalo instead of attending classes.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker
Position: Writer