Seen yet still invisible
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Seen yet still invisible

Government, NGOs take steps to accelerate legal status of stateless children

Seen yet still invisible
More than 10 families bring their children to register for proof of existence in Thailand's civil registration system at the Mobile Civil Registration Unit. Photos: UNICEF/ Patinya Panyayot

No one wants to be stateless -- with no nationality and no legal identity. Having a nationality is a right enshrined and guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet close to 300,000 children in Thailand have no such status. They live in fear, with their fundamental rights and future dreams diminished.

"I've never had any kind of ID card. I've never had a chance to participate in any activity that required a participant to fill his or her ID number in an application form. And, whenever I have to travel, I'm always afraid I'll get arrested," said Namfon*, a 14-year-old girl. Her parents were migrant workers in Chai Prakan district, Chiang Mai province. The child has never had any proof of her existence in Thailand's civil registration system.

Namfon went to Ban Ton Chok school in Chai Prakan town in order to register her request for a "Person with No Registration Status" ID card. The opportunity was arranged by the Mobile Civil Registration Unit Project, which is operated by Unicef in partnership with Terre Des Hommes Germany and the Stateless Children Protection Network, and with the support of the European Union. The goal was to facilitate attaining legal status and Thai citizenship for around 32,000 stateless children in Thailand's northern border areas.

According to the project's plan, the Mobile Civil Registration volunteer team will, from September this year into May next year, move to targeted schools in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces and set up desks for stateless children in the areas to register their requests. The volunteers will be there to give advice and help the children prepare necessary documents. The project targets two groups of children: G-status children in schools and ethnic stateless children.

Santiphong Moonfong, director of Accelerate Legalization and Nationality Application for Stateless Children and co-ordinator for the Mobile Civil Registration Unit Project.

The term "G-status children" refers to children who have no birth record of any form but have been registered by their schools and given student numbers beginning with G (Generate). However, these G-ID numbers which prove the existence of the children in the educational system have no bearing in the Thai civil registration system. In other words, despite a school's recognition, these children do not legally exist. Their right to education is ensured, yet accessing other rights including the right to healthcare and freedom of movement are still not addressed. When required to travel outside of the designated educational zone, they need to obtain permission from the responsible district office.

The term "ethnic stateless children" refers to those who have proof of their birth in Thailand and have already had names registered in the civil registration system. Although these children obtain 13-digit ID numbers, they have not been recognised as Thai citizens. The volunteers will advise them and their families about how to apply for Thai citizenship and help them in compiling necessary documents.

After all paper work is done, the Mobile Civil Registration volunteers and school representatives will deliver applications together with attached documents to responsible district officers for their consideration and processing. The project's task reduces both teacher and district officer workloads and aims to speed up the process of attaining better legal status.

Weera Yooram, director of The Mirrow Foundation and Raisom Learning Center for Ethnic and Immigrant Children.

Thailand is among the countries with the highest number of stateless persons. According to the Ministry of Interior, there were over 539,000 stateless persons in Thailand in 2020. Forty percent, or 297,000, were children.

"A stateless child faces all kinds of restrictions in life. They have limited opportunities for education, healthcare and decent work. Their freedom of movement is very limited and all fundamental rights are diminished. Stateless children are vulnerable to human trafficking, abuse, exploitation and discrimination. All this affects their learning ability, growth and prospects for the future," said Parinya Boonridrerthaikul, Unicef Thailand's child protection officer.

Parinya further explained that Thailand's policy and laws addressing the statelessness problem were sufficiently progressive, clear and inclusive. However, despite the efforts of government and non-governmental agencies, civil society, international organisations and academic sectors, the problem has not yet been eradicated.

Jirachat Suetrakul, Chai Prakan district chief who chaired the MOU signing ceremony at Chai Prakan district.

According to the April 2021 study Invisible Lives: 48 Years Of The Situation Of Stateless Children In Thailand (1972-2020), the major challenge in advancing the status of stateless children in the county lies in local procedures. This includes the lack of staff, funds, unnecessarily complex procedures, and negative attitudes towards stateless persons and children. Stateless persons' lack of knowledge of birth registration and legal status attainment process, coupled with their fear of Thai authorities, also contributed to the problem.

The mobile civil registration units travelling to schools aim to alleviate some of the practical challenges which face both the practitioners and the stateless families themselves.

While waiting in queue along with other children, Namfon wrote down her dream on a piece of paper: "Now I am in Mattayom 2 [eighth grade]. I wish I can continue studying until I get a bachelor's degree. My future dream is to become an actress, a professional dancer, a medical doctor or a business owner. I wish to have a career that allows me to earn enough to help my family live a better life and makes me happy. I have many dreams and I will make them come true."

Namfon's mother, who came along, stated happily: "I'm so glad that my daughter is going to get an ID card [for a person with no registration status] just like the others. I've always been so worried about her because she is a girl. I'm afraid that something bad will happen or she might get lured into something bad, or she might one day get arrested. She is a good student. I will do my best to support her to get the highest education possible."

Currently, Thailand has up to 80,000 G-status stateless children in schools. Around 30,000 of them are in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces.

Volunteers give advice and help the children prepare necessary documents.

With the support of Unicef and the EU, district offices, schools, related agencies and civil society organisations have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to work together to accelerate stateless children's progress towards civil registration and attaining legal status.

Jirachart Suetrakul, the Chai Prakan district chief who chaired the MOU signing ceremony at Chai Prakan district office, said: "Solving the legal status problem has been very slow due to a lack of co-ordination. Each agency was overloaded with various tasks and there was insufficient manpower. The newly signed MOU will have great benefits for stateless children. Once everyone commits to working for the same goal, they shall no longer be stateless."

Santiphong Moonfong, director of the Development Center for Children and Community Network and co-ordinator of the Mobile Civil Registration Unit Project, explained that co-ordination and collaboration between teachers, district officers and civil society organisations will help stateless children gain access to their fundamental rights faster than before. He said the involvement of teachers in the process builds trust.

"This co-ordination accelerates the process for the benefit of children. They will get better protection and better access to their fundamental rights. The Thai government will also find that this way, they can better address educational, public health and national security concerns," Santipong added.

Seeing how drop-out students headed back to school, Suk Jansao, Ban Ton Chok school director and chairperson of the Chai Prakan Teacher's Association, said with a smile: "With the 13-digit ID number, children pay more attention to education. Today there are some who have already asked to return to school. We are definitely ready to welcome them back to learn and gain more knowledge."

*Not her real name.

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