How to help the elderly and stateless
At 82, Alae Ngua, an ethnic Lisu hilltribe villager who lives in Chiang Rai's Mae Chan district, has for the first time in his life received an identity card that certifies he is a Thai citizen.
Also becoming a Thai is his wife, Awumi Ngua, who is 78. Handing the ID card to the two elderly villagers was Thanakom Chongchira, head of the Provincial Administration Department and senior officials from the Interior Ministry. Life before having the ID card was tough and like other stateless people, the couple had no rights, nor dignity. In addition, they were deprived of their rights to state welfare, such as pension money.
Naturalisation is a long and arduous process of waiting for hilltribe villagers, especially for the elderly, who are usually the most vulnerable.
Established in 1986, the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF), a non-profit organisation, has worked closely with government agencies, including provincial authorities, to help seek assistance for hilltribe communities along the Thai-Myanmar border in Chiang Rai, advocating for their rights to become Thai citizens.
The foundation, with support from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, initiated a project for the stateless elderly villagers. It set up a database for this population and conducted case studies, consulting with nationality law experts and officials at the Interior Ministry, as well as district agencies and local leaders.
The first case study involved an application for citizenship in accordance with the regulations on household registration for people in highland areas, which restrict applicability to nine tribes who live in one of 20 provinces, including Chiang Rai.
Eligible applicants must be those who were born between April 10, 1913 to Dec 13, 1972. They are required to use survey documents issued by the hilltribe household registration as evidence for nationality request, as well as provide references from reliable people.
The first successful case was a 98-year-old Akha woman, a resident of Kingsadai village in Chiang Rai. She was granted an ID card and is now entitled to welfare money.
Later on, the foundation expanded the work to more complicated cases, like an old Lisu woman at Ban Heko, whose data on her place of birth was conflicting. According to a registration document issued by the Social Welfare Department, she was born on Thai soil, but according to a population survey document issued in 1981 by the Provincial Administration Department, she was born in Myanmar. With contradicting pieces of evidence, she was forced to become a "stateless" person and was ineligible for naturalisation.
However, consultation between the Mae Chan district office and Chiang Rai authorities led to a conclusion that was favourable to the villagers. The conclusion, endorsed by the chief of the Provincial Administration Department, is a key to this long-standing issue. Tens of thousands of people previously classified as stateless people were able to use evidence from the Social Welfare department and other reliable persons at the villages to fix the confusion over their place of birth through a transparent community consultation process. These are just a few examples.
As a person with more than 40 years of experience on the statelessness issue, and HADF's founder, I think it's necessary that state agencies, civic organisations, academics, the community, the media as well as Asean member states, integrate their data to tackle statelessness.
I had a chance to propose this project to the International Organisation Department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in August 2018, with a view towards better integration. And it became part of the commitment that Thai delegates made at the UNHCR meeting in October last year. Today marks one year since Thailand made the landmark promise. I admire the government for endorsing the seven-point proposal, especially on the protection of elderly stateless people which is point number five out of seven.
Thai laws and regulations are quite progressive in protecting our senior citizens. However, they exclude the elderly stateless population, which accounts for 77,638 people across the country. Of the number, the most, 12,730, are in Chiang Rai. Mae Fah Luang district alone is home to 3,080.
Those people were either born on Thai soil, or born abroad but have continuously lived in Thailand for 30 to 60 years. They have assimilated into Thai society and have made contributions to the country's development.
The current naturalisation process for long stayers is too lengthy and complicated, with so many bureaucratic procedures, and involves a number of committees. Each case may take 30 years. This discourages many from seeking Thai citizenship. For instance, Mae Fah Luang district office organises a mobile unit tasked with extending the one-year migrant cards for this group of people. But those who wish to extend the card are required to pay a 1,200-baht fee. Such a high amount discourages many from renewing the card.
Thailand has made remarkable progress with regards to the statelessness problem. The country is among the leading three Asean member states on this matter, the other two being Indonesia and the Philippines. But we can do more.
All the obstacles that block these people from legal rights, particularly pension money, should be removed so that Thailand can fully observe the UN Declaration on Human Rights 1948 (No.15) which states "everyone has the right to a nationality".
I hope the government sees to it that the state agencies come up with an action plan for the whole proposal, allocate a budget and give priority to elderly stateless people who are the most vulnerable. This is to reach the goal it committed to with the UNHCR -- that the statelessness problem will end by 2024. If we can achieve that, Thailand will proudly become an inclusive society, leaving no one behind.
Tuenjai Deetes is a co-founding committee of Hill Area Development Foundation, and a finalist of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. She is former National Human Rights Commissioner.