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The stateless population of Thailand has no nationality, they are not recognized or accepted as citizens by any country and have no ID cards or passports. Thailand is home to around half a million stateless people who make up part of its seventy million population, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, only Myanmar and Nepal have higher numbers.
Some of Thailand’s stateless people are from remote hill tribes that have ties to the territory but an ethnicity distinct from the Thai majority. Others are the children of illegal migrants who fled to Thailand to avoid persecution and poverty in countries such as Myanmar.
Stateless children, like Srinuan Saokhamnuan, have only two career choices, to work in factories or sell sex. Those who try to leave their villages with no ID face the risk of extortion and arrest and often fall prey to human traffickers who simply make stateless girls ‘disappear’. It is not uncommon for men to arrive in the villages of stateless communities offering jobs that pay a good wage for young women. Many of the women are forced into prostitution, simply because they have no choice. Stateless people have no rights to the basics that most people take for granted such as healthcare, education and employment, they cannot open bank accounts or buy a house or even get married.
Srinuan managed to escape the confines of her village in Chiang Rai province and according to a report in Reuters, is the first stateless person to be granted permission to leave Thailand to stury in the USA. Now age 25 Srinuan will speak in The Hague at the world’s first forum focusing on the more than ten million stateless people worldwide.
Although, in order to address the problem, Thailand reformed its nationality law in 2008 and it has a national strategy to help people acquire citizenship, many stateless people remain unaware of their rights and have difficulty finding their way the bureaucracy involved in getting citizenship.
Srinuan was one of the lucky ones and graduated from an education program run by a non-profit organization that works in Thailand to tackle child exploitation and prostitution – Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities. She went on to win a scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin with assistance from the project. This was only made possible for her when the Thai authorities issued her an alien travel document that allows her to study overseas, although she still has to travel back to Thailand each year to renew her paperwork and often encounters arrest and harassment on her return, and has paid bribes to boarder security who have not believed in the authenticity of her documents.
Two years ago with help from the Thailand Project she met with a new district chief how promised to help her when he discovered that she was born in Thailand and studies in the USA, a few weeks later she got her first ID card along with around five hundred other people who had the right documents.
This year in May she will graduate with a degree in communications and public relations and wants to help other stateless people gain citizenship.