Today in the United States, we celebrate Citizenship Day. It’s a day to remember the creation of the Constitution and to celebrate the blessings of liberty that all citizens are meant to enjoy.
A group of Thai citizens recently celebrated a similar day to reflect on their new freedoms—though they have lived in Thailand for generations, many have just recently been recognized as citizens. The event was not an official national holiday, but hundreds showed up to celebrate.
2.5 Million People in Thailand are Stateless
There are about 12 million stateless people worldwide—and twenty percent live in Thailand. In the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, hill tribe ethnic minority groups have lived in the same villages for generations. Country borders have changed and laws have developed accordingly, but many hill tribes have slipped through the cracks.
Thailand has passed legislation to incorporate these hill tribe villagers as citizens, but the application process is plagued by complex regulations, lack of access to resources, prejudice and government apathy.
Without the citizenship documentation that is their legal right, hill tribe members in Thailand may be denied care at a hospital, prohibited from owning land, and arrested for traveling outside of their home district. They are not guaranteed the right to attend school or to a fair wage for their labor. Without the protection of a justice system, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence, like sexual abuse and human trafficking.
How IJM Helps Citizens Fight For Critical Legal Protection
IJM’s team in Thailand has helped thousands of eligible hill tribe people get citizenship documentation by guiding each individual through the complex application process and advocating relentlessly on their behalf with government officials who are overburdened or uncertain how to handle these cases.
The application process to get this critical citizenship documentation should only take about three months, but even with an IJM lawyer and team of activists pushing the paperwork and advocating with government officials it has taken up to six years.
“We are tackling a huge problem: There are millions of people who were born in Thailand and are legally allowed to be Thai citizens. But they are stuck in this bureaucratic nightmare. Their legal right to citizenship is quite clear, but they need a lawyer to navigate this complex system,” explains Blair Burns, IJM Vice President of Operations for Southeast Asia.
Celebrating Hundreds of Lives Changed, Futures Secured
This summer, IJM hosted two celebrations to honor the 400 people whose citizenship applications have been approved in the last 12 months.
At the first celebration in Nong Keaw village, more than 200 people crowded into a large banquet hall. Many people dressed in their finest traditional clothes and woke up early to make sure they didn’t miss this important celebration. The village headmen and mayor congratulated the audience and thanked IJM for not bowing to corruption and for travelling hours each week to come help them when nobody would.
When Mayo Mayer, a 52-year-old woman from Baanmaisamakkhi village, was asked what the first thing she wanted to do with her citizenship was, she replied passionately, “Elections. I want to vote.” She added that her citizenship also means her family will be safe for generations to come.
At the next celebration in Muang Na township, the District Sheriff attended and children performed a traditional dance on stage. Bright and beautiful traditional hill tribe dresses filled the hall. Many received their official Thai citizenship ID cards at this event—the final piece of documentation that will prove their citizenship.
“Receiving citizenship is like being reborn,” explains IJM Legal Status Documentation Program Manager, La-aw Kukaewkasem. She adds, “We want to celebrate and commemorate this joyous occasion together.”
One woman smiled broadly and remarked that this day was her second birthday.