CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – Noi grew up like many girls in Northern Thailand. Her father was a farmer, and he earned just enough to provide for Noi and her brother. She studied through grade school, until her family could no longer afford to send her. Noi qualified for a scholarship, but she could not receive it. Thailand was her home, but she wasn’t considered a citizen – even though she was legally entitled to citizenship under Thai law.
Noi was stateless, one of an estimated two million people in Thailand who are stateless, who have the protection of no nation. She also belongs to a hill tribe, one of the ethnic minority groups that has been historically marginalized and denied basic rights. Because Noi lacked a simple identification card – one that would count her as a Thai citizen – every attempt to make a better future for herself was blocked. Noi says simply: “You cannot even imagine what life is like without an ID card in Thailand.”
Life Without A Country
Without citizenship, children may not be able to graduate from school. And if they do get to go to school, they might not get an official degree or certificate. Without citizenship, adults cannot travel about freely, and they cannot legally work.
When Noi was 19 years old, she started working. But since she did not have any legal papers proving she was a citizen of Thailand, she had to take whatever job she could get. She started working at a large supermarket warehouse, where she made half as much as the other Thai employees. But Noi could not complain. There was no legal action she could take – not without an ID card.
Noi lived in fear. She was afraid to speak up for her rights, because she feared that her employer might turn her in at any moment. She was afraid of the police, because she feared they might ask to see her papers – which she did not have. She was even afraid to use public transportation, because she feared she might run into a police officer.
“Noi lived a life of invisibility. When she was not a citizen, no one saw her,” says an IJM Thailand staff member. But now, the door to Noi’s future is wide open: “She has life, she can do anything…she can achieve her dreams!”
Noi knew that she was qualified to be a Thai citizen, and she knew it was the only way she would ever feel safe. She braved her way to a local government office and got the application. She submitted it, and then she waited. She followed up. She resubmitted a new application. She made more than ten trips to the government office. Each time, the officials ignored her, or told her the application was lost, or asked her to pay a “fee” – an exorbitant bribe she could never afford. Noi knew that she should not have to pay for something she was already eligible for.
Noi was too afraid to file a complaint against the local officials to a superior office, because she feared they too would overlook her true identity and force her out of her country. Noi was starting to lose hope.
No Longer Afraid
Then Noi’s friend told her about IJM Thailand, a human rights group that had helped him get the citizenship he too deserved. When IJM staff met Noi, they knew right away that she should be eligible for citizenship. Although IJM Thailand has helped hundreds of hill tribe people get the legal status documentation they deserve, Noi’s case would not be easy.
IJM staff wrote a half dozen letters to the district office where Noi’s application had been submitted. Not a single letter was answered. They sent letters of complaint to a half dozen other government bodies, including national-level agencies. They filed a legal case asking the court to direct the local government office to simply review Noi’s application.
Along the way, her friend who had been helped by IJM continued to encourage Noi in the painstaking process. In 2010, he asked Noi to marry him. And earlier this year, Noi gave birth to their daughter. This July, Noi received more good news: Her government ID card was ready to be picked up. IJM had worked on the case for more than three years.
The couple was overjoyed. Their daughter would grow up a proud citizen of Thailand, with both parents sharing her heritage. IJM celebrated the incredible transformation that was possible because Noi and her husband were finally recognized as citizens of their country. One IJM staff member explained that before, “Noi lived a life of invisibility. When she was not a citizen, no one saw her.” But now, she added, the door to Noi’s future is wide open: “She has life, she can do anything…she can achieve her dreams!”
With an unflappable confidence, Nois says “I am no longer afraid of anything now, because I have citizenship."