Plight Of Thailand’s Stateless Population Continues Long After “Cave Boys” Spotlight Dims

With a prosperous economy and thousands of kilometers of porous borders with historically unstable nations, Thailand is home to a large and established population of stateless people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the number of registered stateless persons at just under half a million. However, due to a large number remaining unregistered, this figure is believed to be more realistically between two and three million.

A stateless person is defined as someone who is not recognized as a citizen of any country. Many of Thailand’s stateless population had been displaced from Myanmar during the nearly six-decade-long war between the Myanmar military and various ethnic groups. Most have been living in communities along bordering areas of Thailand for decades or even generations, and have no ties or legal standings in the countries they originated from. Many have lived in Thailand their whole life. Stateless people in Thailand have very few rights under Thai law, and do not have the ability to travel outside their province, vote, own land, or have unrestricted access to healthcare and education. Until recently, they were also severely limited in their employment to 27 different types of low-skilled jobs.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. And until recently, they showed little desire to create a citizenship pathway for stateless people. While Thailand has made steps to give citizenship to select parts of its stateless population, this process is seen as unnecessarily long, cumbersome, and ultimately unachievable for the majority of stateless people. Among many of the current conditions for citizenship, a person must be able to prove they were born in Thailand and have parents who belong to one of the handful of officially recognized, non-Thai ethnic groups.

For many, the process is unachievable, given that they do not have the required documentary proof to meet the citizenship threshold, despite having lived the majority — or whole — of their life in Thailand. Many also have limited knowledge as to what their rights are in seeking citizenship, so they remain unaware of the application process. Entrenched and widespread corruption within the Thai officialdom has created mistrust of the government, and thus, many are choosing not to undertake this process.

The plight of Thailand’s stateless was projected this year onto the world stage, when the world’s media converged on Northern Thailand after 13 members of a soccer team were trapped inside a cave by flooding. In the aftermath, it was revealed that four of the thirteen boys were stateless, and therefore held significantly less rights under Thai law than their teammates. They were granted fast-tracked citizenship within weeks of being freed from the cave, with critics believing it due to the international spotlight being placed on them.

The problem of statelessness persists in Thailand due to a number of factors. While the government has taken steps to achieve a lofty aim of ending statelessness by 2024, stateless persons have limited knowledge of their rights, are often marginalized, and are deterred by what is seen as a long and unachievable process to gain Thai citizenship. Putanee Kangkun of human rights group Fortify Rights maintains that the process “typically takes years”, during which time, stateless people face restrictions on where they can work and travel, and are “basically… not considered as Thai”.

In 2016, the Thai government lauded changes to laws that would open the gates for up to 80,000 stateless people to gain Thai citizenship, although this was only a small fraction of those who need it. When a person is stateless, they not only lack an identity and sense of belonging to a society, but also suffer various human rights abuses through restricted movement, as well as being vulnerable to exploitation due to their precarious position.

Carol Batchelor, director of UNCHR’s international protection division divulged to the media, “If you live in this world without a nationality, you are without an identity, you are without documentation, without the rights and entitlements that we take for granted.” Stateless people are also at significantly higher risk of falling victim to human trafficking, as it is easier for them to go missing.

Thailand is undoubtedly at a significant geographical disadvantage by having porous land borders with various countries. While it is understandable the Thai government wants to protect its borders and national sovereignty, it is questionable that in such a regionally dominant and fast-developing country, there are large numbers of established communities who are unable to attain citizenship through existing methods. Lack of education about rights, mistrust in the government, the complex process and general uncertainty about the scale of the problem are the largest factors that need to be addressed in order for the Thai government to achieve its goal of ending statelessness by 2024. Thailand has granted citizenship to 18,000 stateless people in the past three years, which is a step in the right direction, but it is certainly just the tip of the iceberg. Efforts must be made to simplify the process for these long established residents who have minimal or no rights under Thai law.

These hurdles could be broken down in a number of ways. Firstly, the government could fully survey the scale of the issue and educate those non-registered stateless persons about their rights and the process of gaining citizenship. Providing an amnesty to register and apply for residency will help alleviate fears of being arrested, imprisoned or deported. The lengthy and complex citizenship process should also be simplified to reflect the fact that many genuinely stateless people do not have the required documentation and proof to satisfy the complex requirements. Moreover, while the government has allowed them access to the most basic education and healthcare, it still remains out of reach for many, with hospitals often demanding identity documents before giving treatment. The government should also make immediate moves to offer residency to those living within its borders that do not have residency in other countries, given that most have been in Thailand for an extended period of time.

Removing draconian restrictions around travel and extending access to basic human necessities such as healthcare and education is crucial. It is unacceptable to treat up to three million people as second-class citizens, many of whom have been living in the country their whole lives. Restricting their freedoms and limiting their human rights is hugely damaging, not only for the stateless persons themselves, but also for Thai society as a whole. It creates an enormous group of outsiders living in poverty, with no dignity or sense of belonging, and limited rights.

While their 2016 endeavour to grant citizenship to 80,000 people may be a decent start, it is insufficient, And in the light of the decision made to fast-track the citizenship of the four boys rescued from the cave presumably because they were newsworthy, meanwhile, exponentially more people in the same situation are left to flounder with no simple way to bring stability into their lives. If citizenship can be granted so easily to those in the spotlight of the world media, it should go without saying that others in the same situation be afforded the same rights with the same urgency, even when the gaze of the world is diverted elsewhere.