Racism holds back economy as society ages
text size

Racism holds back economy as society ages

Stateless children join their Thai classmates at a school in Samut Sakhon. They and their parents are pointedly excluded from the government's new programme to reward parents who produce 'real Thai' babies. (File photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
Stateless children join their Thai classmates at a school in Samut Sakhon. They and their parents are pointedly excluded from the government's new programme to reward parents who produce 'real Thai' babies. (File photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

The government's policy to encourage more births of "Thai" children to help offset the cost of a rapidly approaching ageing society reflects deep-rooted racial prejudice in policy formulation.

Why is the government intent on increasing the number of "Thai" children via tax breaks to parents when there are hundreds of thousands of stateless, migrant and undocumented children still waiting for state support so they can become productive citizens in Thai society?

The answer is simple -- racist nationalism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Of course, the authorities would fiercely deny it. They would argue it's simple economy.

Thailand is ageing rapidly. Within the next two decades, the number of the elderly will rise to over 20 million, or one-third of the total population. More than 12 million of them, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute, will be older than 70 years old.

With a heavy healthcare burden ahead, the country urgently needs more young able-bodied people to work and pay enough tax to support the elderly. A tax policy to encourage more births is necessary, so the argument goes.

Of course we should have policies to cope with an ageing society but I doubt this tax break policy will work.

According to this policy, parents will get a tax break of 30,000 baht for their second child born from this year onwards, starting next year. It will take another 20 years for these second-born children to be able to work and pay tax to meet the policy objective.

While the government has revealed it would lose about 1.25 billion baht in revenue from the tax break policy, it fails to realise that the tax break privilege has little or nothing to do with parents' decision to have children, given the exorbitant costs overall involved in child rearing.

Meanwhile, there are now hundreds thousands of children waiting to be embraced and supported by the state. Many were born in Thailand but undocumented. Many are abandoned at birth in hospitals. Many are homeless. Many are migrant children rejected by their parents' home countries. All of them end up stateless in Thailand.

When you are stateless in this country, this is the life ahead of you:

Thanks to the country's education for all policy, you may be able to go to Thai schools until high school -- that is, if you are fortunate enough to have financial support from someone, somewhere.

Still, you do not have freedom of movement. If you leave designated areas, the police can arrest and send you to jail any time -- even deport you to neighbouring countries as illegal workers -- if you cannot produce any official papers.

Being stateless, you do not exist legally, so you cannot have access to healthcare services and any state-sponsored aid schemes.

Being stateless prevents you from finding jobs in companies and state agencies where job security and welfare benefits are provided -- even when you manage to finish university education through great difficulty -- because those jobs require you to be Thai nationals with identification cards to start with.

Lacking life and job security, stateless people mostly end up being exploited by employers, extorted by corrupt police, or pushed into the underground economy run by mafia.

At present, adopting abandoned stateless babies or homeless children is not possible by law. Adoption is only possible if those stateless children are already in orphanages. Even when they are, adoption remains difficult due to red tape.

Similarly, migrant children who grow up here and want to remain in Thailand face an uncertain future with no security, vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.

For a country which is rapidly ageing like Thailand, these children should be valuable human resources, deserving state support so they can fully contribute to the economy. However, this humane option is dismissed simply because they are not "Thai".

If this is not racism, what is?

Before 1972, all children born in Thailand immediately received Thai citizenship and the rights that come with it. Amid the height of communist threats, the Thai nationality law was changed under racist myopia; if your parents were undocumented or without official papers for permanent residence, you immediately became illegal migrants even if you were born here.

A large number of children -- mostly indigenous highlanders in remote areas -- suffer statelessness and the vulnerabilities that come with it as a result.

This is why millions of highlanders have been living under constant fear of deportation and forest eviction during the past five decades. Without land security and citizenship, they suffer hardship and abject poverty. Consequently, a large number of highlanders have resorted to quick cash crop plantations, resulting in deforestation. Many young hilltribe girls went into the flesh trade to support their families while the boys have little choice but to join the underground world of crime.

After decades of treating the stateless as "national security threats", and after persistent policy pushes from rights groups, the government has recently given in to reasons and humanity, albeit half-heartedly.

In 2016, the government agreed to loosen nationality restrictions for the stateless born in Thailand. Unfortunately, rigid rules and bureaucratic inertia rooted in ethnic prejudice remain a huge stumbling block.

For example, the children of registered highlanders are still required to have official birth registration and education record papers although many of them live in remote areas without access to state services.

For orphans without parents' records, they are required to live in Thailand more than 10 years to be eligible for Thai citizenship. But they must also be able to provide education documents and an approval letter from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

As for children of migrant workers, they must have birth registration documents from local hospitals -- and few do. They also must at least have a university degree to be able to ask for legal identity as Thai nationals.

How could these underprivileged children possibly navigate through these rigid rules and red tape to meet such prerequisites?

So far, only one undocumented orphan has ever managed to receive approval for Thai citizenship, thanks to his adoptive parents' never-say-die persistence and legal assistance from a rights group.

Another citizenship case is being made for another stateless teenage orphan, but only because she happens to be an outstanding athlete. Without Thai nationality, the young teenager could not join national teams nor travel abroad to make a name for the country.

Meanwhile, others with stateless status are left neglected, left to face a life with no future on their own.

The latest changes in nationality rules and regulations are certainly a step in the right direction. But they are plagued with so many red tape problems multiplied by official prejudice that few children can benefit from them.

The country loses valuable human resources for its tax base as a result.

If the government really wants to expand its tax base to support the ageing population, the first hurdle it must overcome is the myth of "Thainess" and the false belief in racial superiority, to give everyone in our society equal opportunities.

Ethnic prejudice does not only impoverish our minds, it hurts the economy. If we release the stateless and migrant workers from their legal traps -- just as we did with Chinese migrants in the past -- we can release their economic force to propel the economy forward.

The other option is economic stagnation as the country turns grey.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender and Thai Buddhism.

Do you like the content of this article?