CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – Dozens of families waited patiently outside the rural government office, eager to begin the day they’d anticipated for so long: the day they could apply for citizenship in their own country.
The parents, grandparents and children had traveled from small villages in the surrounding mountains—one family even coming by tractor—to meet local officials newly trained on granting them this right. The officials, too, were eager to begin the day. They were finishing a three-day workshop led by IJM Thailand on the laws protecting these undocumented hill tribe people.
The families will need to wait many months more for their citizenship to be granted, but this day was a crucial step in providing protection these hill tribe people desperately need in their own country.
The Perils of Life without Citizenship
IJM helped secure citizenship or elevated legal status for more than 900 hill tribe people in 2014, but many more are still waiting. In Northern Thailand, nearly half a million hill tribe people live undocumented even though they were born and raised here. These hill tribes have lived in the region for generations, but many do not hold citizenship. As a result, they are stateless and highly vulnerable to being exploited and abused.
“Citizenship is life,” says IJM Thailand Director Khem Saksakunmongkhon. Without citizenship, you may not be allowed to graduate from school, or you may be barred from attending at all. You may not earn the same wage as a Thai worker, and you have no legal recourse. You may be denied medical care. You may not buy land or travel freely between districts.
In fact, lack of citizenship is the highest risk factor for being trafficked, according to one UN study, and many of the victims of sexual assault who IJM represents are children from hill tribes. IJM Social Worker Wibunrat Ladaphongpattana adds, “We have encountered some sexual assault cases where there were barriers to proceed with the case due to their lack of documentation.”
Tackling the Problem by Training Officials
Thailand has laws entitling hill tribe people to Thai citizenship, but the application process is complex and often fraught with difficulty. Some government officials are prejudiced and actively do not want hill tribe people to become Thai citizens, but many simply do not understand how to apply the laws. There are strong punishments for approving an ineligible application, but there is no consequence for failing to take action; many officials fear reprisal, so applications can sit on their desks for years.
In November, IJM partnered with local NGOs and hosted three-day trainings in four different districts. More than 200 government officials learned about the complex legal status laws, discussed fears and misconceptions about helping stateless people, received step-by-step guidance on the whole process, and attended roundtables where officials could ask IJM staff questions in smaller groups.
“I came with mixed expectations about what we were going to do in the next three days,” says Pimnapah Seepoh from Mueang Tak Municipality, “but now I’m happy I came because this training has given me a deeper understanding on this aspect of my work.”
Venus Seesuk, a Central Government official and the top expert in this field, was flown in from Bangkok to give specialized training.
“[Venus Seesuk] has a very good understanding of what the government officials are dealing with on the ground level, and gave a lot of clarification on the citizenship laws,” says La-Aw Kukaewkasem, an IJM attorney who has advocated for hundreds of individuals to receive citizenship when they faced serious obstacles. She adds, “I came away with learning new things myself.”
The training ended with a practical exercise in the field. Government officials travelled to a tiny town where dozens of hill tribe people who want to become citizens had gathered. This was a chance to put into practice all they had learned in the previous two days.
One by one, each family came forward to the temporary tables set up. The district officials handed out various forms and asked questions to determine each person’s legal status. The officials took photographs, pressed thumbs into inkpads and added the finalized paperwork into each application file.
“The last two days of training helped me to identify which law and application process applied to each hill tribe villager that came to my post today,” says district official Janteema Laopreechakun, “I feel more confident but would love to receive more training.”