CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – Mali* has lived in the same mountainous village for all 9 years of her life. Her mother, Bua,* grew up there too. Bua's brother is their village leader. Everyone knows the family, and yet, this mother and daughter have been repeatedly denied basic rights their entire lives—because they did not have the citizenship papers they were entitled to under Thai law.
Entitled to but Denied the Rights of a Citizen
Bua's parents died tragically when she was a baby—before they were able to register Bua's birth. Like most children in the village, she was not born in a hospital, and therefore there was no immediate record. Even though Bua's older brother—the one who is now a leader in the same village—was registered and recognized as a Thai citizen, Bua was not.
There are about two millions "stateless" people living in Thailand—meaning they do not technically belong to Thailand or any other country. Bua and Mali are Karen, an ethnic minority group that is one of the "hill tribes" living along the Northern Thai border and surrounding countries.
IJM Thailand Field Office Director Khem Saksakunmongkhon explains that stateless people who are from a hill tribe will invariably "encounter discrimination based on their ethnicity, and this translates into an undignified life." The tragedy for Bua and Mali was that they were in fact clearly entitled to citizenship under the law.
What Statelessness Meant for Bua and Mali
Bua is mute and lives with learning disabilities, and she communicates mostly through signs and with her bright smile. She is in her mid-thirties now, and she works hard as an agricultural laborer. Growing up, she never received adequate medical care since doctors can choose to deny treatment to stateless people.
She and her daughter, Mali, live in a sturdy two-room hut with other relatives. Their house is like their neighbors', but Mali, only 9, says she has always known there was something different about her and her mother. Teachers don't treat her like the other students. They even give her different homework—much more elementary than her peers—and she says they never check it. And she has never been allowed to go on any field trips with her class—without paperwork proving citizenship, it is illegal to travel outside her district.
No Longer Alone in the Struggle to Prove Citizenship
IJM first heard Bua and Mali's stories from a Compassion International worker in 2011. Both organizations have been working on their case ever since. The first step was filling out the lengthy citizenship application; then it was time to gather all of the supporting paperwork.
Recent laws in Thailand make clear pathways to citizenship for stateless people like Bua—whose parents were in fact Thai citizens. But many local and district officials do not know about these laws or how to implement them.
There were other obstacles along the way. Mali had to complete a DNA test as part of her application. When the results were finally available, after six long months of waiting, the district government office did not acknowledge receiving the test. It took many more months of IJM and Compassion staff tag-teaming the office with visits, asking relentlessly for the officials to look again for the critical medical test.
Relentless Advocacy Pays Off
The process of proving the mother and daughter's right to citizenship was straightforward and should have taken three to six months. Instead, it took 18 months for Bua and two and a half years for Mali.
When IJM learned that Mali's citizenship application had finally been approved this summer, they contacted the eager mother and daughter right away. A team of IJM staff traveled the bumpy roads once more to help Mali accept her ID card—a small plastic card that looks like an American driver's license and represents a whole new world of opportunity. The day of celebration was finally here.