Members of one of northern Thailand’s nine hill tribes, Buter and her husband Ahsuer spent years scavenging for food just to have enough to eat to survive. They could not travel to find better opportunities elsewhere in Thailand, and their children couldn’t access the opportunity that education would offer them. Why? Because Buter and Ahsuer – like thousands of other hill tribe members – lacked simple documentation that would entitle them to the basic benefits of Thai citizenship.
Despite the fact that they had lived in Thailand all their lives and met the legal requirements for citizenship, Ahsuer and Buter could not obtain it due to a cumbersome, difficult application process, the challenge of which is often compounded by institutional prejudice against hill tribe members.
There may be as many as one million hill tribe people living in northern Thailand, many of whom lack the citizenship documentation to which they are legally entitled. Like Buter and Ahsuer, hill tribe members without citizenship documentation cannot travel freely, access state health care or education.
"Some people think [citizenship] is just a plastic card – but in reality, those without that card don’t have a life."— Khem Saksakunmongkhon, IJM Thailand, Field Office Director
As a result, members of Thailand’s hill tribes are particularly vulnerable to traffickers and other criminals. With their lives circumscribed by incredibly limited opportunities, children, women and men are susceptible to lies designed to lure them into systems of violent abuse.
Ahsuer and Buter had jobs planting trees for a government conservation project, but when the project ended, so did their employment. They managed to survive by growing a small amount of rice, corn and ginger on their small plot of land. They wanted to pursue employment in the city, but couldn’t, due to the risk of being arrested for traveling without identification. “People would treat us like we were not human,” remembers Buter.
The family’s situation grew far worse when Ahsuer, who had been suffering from internal pain, was told that he would require surgery—and that he would have to pay the high cost required for those without citizenship documentation. To pay for the surgery, the family was forced to sell their small plot of land. When Ahsuer came down with a serious infection as a result of the procedure, the family had no money for further treatment, no land to grow food for sustenance, and very little hope that things would get better any time soon. Though they had applied for citizenship several times, they lacked documentation that proved their Thai background. Again and again, their applications were denied.
When IJM Thailand heard Ahsuer and Buter’s story, they took up the family’s case. IJM Thailand – whose director is a hill tribe member himself – works to ensure that hill tribe members receive this crucial documentation, combating trafficking and other abuse by reducing vulnerability to oppression. In 2008 alone, IJM Thailand secured citizenship documentation for more than 1,000 hill tribe members.
IJM Thailand was able to track down birth certificates for both Ahsuer and Buter, along with enough solid evidence to submit another citizenship application, which they ensured was processed correctly. With IJM’s help, Ahsuer and Buter were able to claim what was rightfully theirs within the law: They both became documented Thai citizens. “Some people think [citizenship] is just a plastic card,” says IJM Thailand Field Office Director Khem Saksakunmongkhon. “But in reality, those without that card don’t have a life.”
In 2008 alone, IJM Thailand secured citizenship for more than 1,000 hill tribe members.
Now, with IJM’s help, Ahsuer and Buter have access to a whole new world within Thailand. Because of IJM’s ongoing assistance, Ahsuer now has access to health care and benefits he did not even realize he could get as a citizen, and he has a new sense of determination to do all that he can to get better. Buter now lives with a sense of peace, security and dignity that she has not had for a long time. When IJM Thailand staff last visited Ahsuer and Buter, they were greeted by very different people than the ones they had first met. With two thumbs up, Buter told the team, “We feel good!” Like hundreds of other hill tribe members assisted by IJM Thailand, they have security – and hope for the future.