SEATTLE — The extraordinary rescue mission of the Wild Boars soccer team from the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand sparked worldwide attention. As a team of doctors, divers, and support staff from across the globe joined forces to successfully extract the 12 boys and their coach from the cave, news of their miraculous story brought to the spotlight a pressing issue in Thailand.
Three of the soccer players on the Wild Boars team, along with their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, are stateless migrants. Statelessness is the condition of lacking citizenship in any country. According to the United Nations refugee agency, at least 440,000 stateless people live in Thailand. However, human rights groups project that the actual number of stateless people residing in Thailand could be closer to three million, accounting for 4 percent of the country’s 70 million inhabitants.
Statelessness Often a Result of Ethnic Discrimination
There are many stateless people in the region known as the “Golden Triangle,” where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Many stateless people in Thailand are victims of neighboring Myanmar’s many years of ethnic strife, and the northern Thai region has served as an entry point into Thailand for migrants.
One of the boys on the Wild Boar soccer team, 14-year-old Adul, is a stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch. Adul played a critical role in the rescue. Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, he served as an interpreter for the British divers and communicated with them about the boys’ needs during their time entrapped in the cave.
Adul, a top student in his class at the Ban Wiang Phan School in Mae Sai, represents the limited opportunities for stateless people. At his school, where 20 percent of students are stateless and half are ethnic minorities, the principal, Punnawit Thepsurin, told the New York Times, “stateless children have a fighting spirit that makes them want to excel. Adul is the best of the best.”
Because stateless people in Thailand lack citizenship papers from any one country, they are denied the right to have rights. They have limited or no access to education, healthcare, work or freedom of movement. With little legal protections, undocumented workers in Thailand can be at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. Thailand has refused to ratify the United Nations convention guaranteeing rights for refugees, so stateless people also face restrictions in access to financial services. Stateless populations are caught in a cycle that continues to repeat itself across generations. Children are stripped of their youth, robbed of their potential, and left without any dream of a future.
NGOs Help Secure Citizenship for Stateless People in Thailand
However, there are programs working to combat this issue, such as the Thailand Project. Its mission is to create opportunities for stateless people in Thailand by securing their rights and raising awareness worldwide. Some of the Thailand Project’s initiatives include Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid, which obtains Thai citizenship for stateless people in Thailand by partnering with NGOs in Thailand and U.S. universities. This allows the Thai government to acknowledge the stateless recipients as participants in society, allowing them freedom of movement and enabling potential scholars to enroll at an institution of higher education. After completing their degrees in America, scholars return to Thailand, applying the knowledge they have gained from higher education to fighting statelessness.
During its first three years (from August 2005 to July 2008), the Thailand Project established numerous partnerships between the United States and Thailand to allow students to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. These students have been able to re-enter Thailand to work towards their citizenship and have joined NGOs that are committed to using education to fight the issues surrounding statelessness.
Estimates state that there are anywhere between 12 to 15 million stateless people in the world, with as many as 3.5 million in Thailand. Initiatives such as the Thailand Project are working towards increasing citizenship opportunities for stateless people in Thailand. Their efforts, alongside the awareness that the recent Thai rescue has created, are improving Thailand’s working economy.
– Shefali Kumar