CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – On Christmas Eve, IJM staff traveled into the mountains of Northern Thailand. Their first stop: a tiny village where they gathered with more than 350 people. Their next stop: A courthouse.
The villagers belong to a Hill Tribe and have lived in northern Thailand for generations. However, they lack the documentation to prove that they are Thai citizens. There is a simple process to get the right documentation—it should take about three months to have a citizenship application reviewed. But IJM has been advocating for these men and women for more than two years.
"Citizenship is theirs by right and by law," explains IJM Director of Operations in Southeast Asia, Blair Burns. He adds, "Any law will fail to protect if it's not put into practice, and in this case these Hill Tribe people are being oppressed because a simple process stopped moving."
At A Standstill
Without documentation of their Thai citizenship, Hill Tribe members are deprived of public education and access to hospitals. They may be denied minimum wage or employment opportunities. They can be arrested for traveling outside their district, forced to pay a bribe or jailed if caught. Hill Tribe women are particularly vulnerable to violence like sexual abuse and human trafficking. The law not only fails to protect these people—it actually and village elders. In 2012, IJM staff reached an impasse in one particular district in Northern Thailand—hundreds of applications had stacked up, and none were being approved or rejected. They weren't moving at all. The families were stuck waiting in a dangerous state of limbo.
After many efforts to advocate directly with the government officials, IJM filed a complaint against this particular office with an administrative court. Legal action against government partners is not a step taken lightly, but it was clear the applications were at a standstill—and people's lives were in the balance.
One Roadblock Removed
For 15 months, the case progressed slowly through the court. During those months, IJM's relentless advocacy continued. The district office approved a handful of citizenship applications at a time, but there was no serious attempt to review the massive backlog.
Finally, on December 24, 2013, IJM's complaint was up for judgment: The court ordered the district government to review the pending citizenship applications within 90 days.
It was a huge milestone for the villagers who had gathered with IJM staff earlier that afternoon. Though it remains to be seen how quickly the district government will act, there is now a clear mandate that these citizenship applications must be reviewed.
"We commend the court's decision to compel the district government to take swift action in reviewing these completed applications," says IJM Thailand director Khem Saksakunmongkhon, adding, "And we look forward to a day when we can celebrate with the hundreds of people who are still waiting for the paperwork that will let them plan a better and safer future for their children."
Read more about the court's decision in this article from the Bangkok Post.