Plight of the stateless

Plight of the stateless

These 143 people turned from stateless to Thai at a ceremony early this year after months or years of waiting. (File photo by Chaiwat Sadyaem)
These 143 people turned from stateless to Thai at a ceremony early this year after months or years of waiting. (File photo by Chaiwat Sadyaem)

The United Nations is taking a meaningful step tonight. Its UN High Commission on Refugees is to launch a new project, "Every Child's Right to a Nationality". Recently, the UNHCR named Thailand as one of its few official "Friends of the Campaign to End Statelessness". That should not cloud us from acknowledging existing hurdles. It is true that there are legal changes to help stateless people becoming Thai citizens. For all that, much more effort is still needed.

In Thailand, there are 443,862 stateless people who deserve Thai nationality. Born and living in Thailand, they are the hill tribes or children of illegal migrants, particularly from Myanmar.

Stateless people have huge disadvantages, hardly realised by those blessed with full nationality. "Blessed" is an appropriate word. Unlike Thai citizens, they cannot walk into government and private facilities where they must first show their ID cards. They cannot go to a clinic or hospital for immediate treatment of illness or injury. They cannot have a bank account, buy and use a smartphone, own and drive a car, or buy property and a home.

Over the past decade and more, as the United Nations will reiterate tonight, governments have made significant progress in fixing this disparity. There now are official channels where stateless people in Thailand can apply, seek to document and eventually gain the full nationality they deserve. Slowly, the unfair rules and laws of the past are being wiped out, and the stateless have a true opportunity to join the Thai mainstream.

However, these efforts are halfhearted and plagued with bureaucratic hurdles.

For example, a new law, passed in 2008, that grants Thai citizenship to stateless people is only applicable to those who were born before Feb 26, 1992. The younger generations remain stateless. It impacts harshly, unfairly and unnecessarily the most vulnerable -- the children.

Meanwhile, a 2012 amendment to the National Act only grants citizenship to around 17,000 people identified as "displaced Thais". A government decision last year gives legal status to only stateless students in Thai schools who have been recorded in the state database.

More importantly, there are still too many roadblocks when it comes to the application of laws and regulations. While governments have torn down many walls to full nationality, there are officials who slow or stall the process. Cases of corruption have been uncovered. So have cases of outright prejudice, where officials "accidentally" lose, slow or dispose of applications.

Nevertheless, there have been dramatic changes. One of the most noticeable was a total reversal of policy on schools. Now, not just stateless children but offspring of migrants attend state schools. This was unheard of a generation ago. A new regulation passed last month allows stateless people to enter formal employment in professions not reserved for Thais.

The state must assure that all the old laws on nationality are revisited and amended to give basic rights and Thai citizenship to more than 400,000 people. There must be an end to prejudice by local officials who are currently entitled to use their own judgement on whether to reject applications.

Still, as the UN says, Thailand is one of world's better examples. In the past decade, it has got better at eliminating prejudice, legal and social alike. State hospitals have been instructed to issue birth registrations for all children. The military regime last year adopted a goal, held by only a few other countries, of "zero statelessness" by 2024.

The tide is turning, and none too soon. More than 400,000 people deserve to be recognised as Thai nationals, with citizens' rights. The UNHCR deserves credit for pushing this issue further into the public's consciousness.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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