CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – La-aw drives down a dirt road, winding through hilly countryside dotted with villages of varying sizes. Though the road is not drawn on many maps, La-aw knows the route from Chiang Mai into the tiny villages well. She and other IJM Thailand staff make frequent rounds into the rural villages to help families get citizenship.
Around the world, some 12 million are stateless, people who do not have citizenship of any kind. No citizenship means no country claims you. No justice system protects you. No guarantees your children will get to go to school or you will be able to find a job that pays a fair wage. And nowhere to go if in fact you do get thrown out of the village you have lived your whole life.
In the mountainous regions spanning several Asian countries, including Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and China, tribal minority groups known as the hill tribes have lived in villages for generations. Country borders have changed and laws have developed to protect the people who live within each country, but many of the ethnic minority groups, like the hill tribes, have slipped through the cracks. Though they have lived in the same villages for generations, many of these individuals are undocumented – stateless, claimed by no nation.
IJM helps individuals who are eligible for citizenship get this important right in Thailand – a right that guarantees them freedom to move about the country without fear of arrest, a right to work and educate their children, and rights to full protection of the law. According to UNESCO, lack of citizenship is "the major risk factor for [hill tribe] women and girls in Thailand to be trafficked or, otherwise, exploited."
The Path to Citizenship
Earlier this year, the Thai government conducted a survey to document all people living within Thai borders, in order to then assess who should be counted as citizens. The survey was administered by local government branches over three months, and several of the offices in districts where IJM works called IJM staff for assistance.
IJM surveyed over 5,500 individuals, completing the government survey form with important data that must be verified before an Identity Card is issued.
"It brings me such joy to see families holding their Identity Cards – something you take for granted unless you don't have one." – La-aw, IJM Thailand staff member
"Getting someone an Identity Card is the first step to helping them become a citizen of Thailand," explains La-aw. "Even though the families might have been living in the same village for two or three generations, the Government has to see some form of identification when they apply for legal status as Thai citizens. And citizenship is crucial."
IJM staff then zeroed in on half a dozen villages, going door-to-door to meet with each individual surveyed. They gathered evidence that would be added to an application packet for the government-issued Identity Card.
IJM facilitated "Community Guarantee Meetings," an important way to validate details an individual provided on his or her government survey. At the meeting, the individual who applied for an Identity Card stood up before a room full of immediate family, neighbors and the village leader – community members who vouch that he or she has in fact been part of their community for the time stated on the survey. IJM staff recorded the ceremonies and submitted with the application for an Identity Card.
Identity Cards Issued: Major Milestone
During the month of October, La-aw traveled the dirt roads with great excitement, traveling back and forth to the district office to finalize applications for Identity Cards. She and other IJM staff have been working all year to verify the hundreds of surveys filled out by individuals who claim to be eligible for Thai Identity Cards. IJM celebrated the fruit of months of labor: In a single month, the district government approved 271 applications for official Identity Cards.
Without any official documentation, these men, women and children lived in constant fear of government authorities stopping them and asking for proof that they were actually allowed to live or work or even go to school in Thailand – to live in the village where they have lived their whole life. The Identity Card guarantees the holder protection under Thai laws and opens the door for him or her to move about the country freely without fear of arrest. The Identity Card is also a critical prerequisite for full Thai citizenship.
La-aw was overjoyed to see that many of the families she had surveyed earlier this year were among the dozens of approved applications. The Identity Cards document the hill tribe members of Thailand – giving them a state and a place to call home.
"It brings me such joy to see families holding their Identity Cards – something you take for granted unless you don't have one," La-aw says. "And now the real work begins: helping them get full citizenship."
IJM staff will continue to advocate the local government officials to finish processing the paperwork and take the next steps so each of the eligible hill tribe members will become full Thai citizens.