Friday, 22 February 2013

Reflections on Thailand (1): A protracted and neglected situation of statelessness

This is the first in a short series of blog posts dedicated to the situation of statelessness among Thailand’s ethnic minority people (the ‘hill tribes’). They are inspired by our current research into the impact of statelessness on women in Thailand, which aims specifically to map the link with human trafficking – a project funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration.

A large stateless population
For some time, Thailand topped the global statelessness charts: with a whopping estimate of 3.5 million stateless people, Thailand was believed to be home to the largest stateless community of any country in the world. More recently, this number has been revised down, based on a better understanding of the definition of a stateless person (following guidance on this question issued by UNHCR) and a more detailed study of the relevant populations in Thailand. As it turned out, and due in part to confusion surrounding the use of terminology in the Thai context, the high figure had been inflated by the inclusion of a large number of statusless people who are currently present on Thai soil without the requisite documents or permission under the country’s immigration law, but do largely hold a (foreign) nationality.

Today, Thailand reports a stateless population of just over half a million. In the global leagues, the country is therefore still very much a heavy hitter. Only Myanmar and Nepal have a higher figure in UNHCR’s statistical tables (at year-end 2010). Moreover, the number of stateless people in Thailand is five times the combined number of asylum seekers and refugees residing in the country.

An indigenous, ethnic minority, stateless community
Most of Thailand’s stateless people are members of the community known collectively as the ‘hill tribes’ (or sometimes ‘highlanders’), because they traditionally reside in the mountainous western and northern areas of the country, in particular along the borders with Myanmar and Lao PDR. They are an indigenous community within these regions, with ancestral ties to the territory. They are also an ethnic minority community – distinct from the Thai majority population – and comprise a multitude of different tribes, each with its own linguistic and cultural traits.

As mentioned, many hill tribe people and their ancestors have inhabited Thailand for hundreds of years. Others arrived in the country during various waves of migration in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries – in particular during periods of upheaval in their countries of origin (which include China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam). Collectively, these groups make up the contemporary ethnic minority, hill tribe community in Thailand. Their total number in Thailand is not known, but some estimates put it in the region of 2 million people. Many hold Thai nationality, but some half a million are stateless.

It is of interest to note that a smaller indigenous population which is also grappling with statelessness can be found further south in Thailand, along the Andaman coast. Known as the Moken, Chao Lay or simply ‘Sea Gypsies’, they are a relatively small group (a few thousand people) who have lived semi-nomadic lives in this part of the country for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Following the devastating 2004 tsunami, several projects were launched in the area to support the re-documentation of people and the re-building of livelihoods. It was then that this population’s lack of citizenship came to light and there has been some work since to try to resolve their statelessness. Our own research into the impact of statelessness on women in Thailand does not include the Moken – it is limited to the experiences of Thailand’s stateless hill tribe people.  

Protracted and neglected
Statelessness has been a phenomenon among Thailand’s hill tribe population ever since the country first began to really document its nationals, in the 1950s. For many, exclusion was a result of the poor enumeration of people or villages – some simply lived in such remote areas that they did not come into (regular) contact with the state authorities and were overlooked when civil registration and nationality documentation systems were implemented. Others may have had the opportunity to register as citizens, but did not see the importance of doing so, since the whole concept of nationality was alien to their lives. During various later attempts to fill in the gaps in census and civil registration records, the Thai authorities did not necessarily recognise those encountered – who were not previously registered – as Thai nationals. Instead, a system of different coloured cards was implemented to grant some form of temporary status to the ethnic minority groups, pending a more durable solution. For many, the difficulty in accessing Thai nationality was then compounded by a revision of the nationality policy to exclude from the country’s jus soli rules anyone whose parents were deemed to be illegally residing in Thailand. In other words, children born on Thai soil to illegally present parents – including many of the groups who held the aforementioned temporary statuses, which were not considered lawful residence – was excluded from nationality and would also be stateless. As such, statelessness became a protracted and hereditary phenomenon within these communities and there are many families which have been stateless for generations.

Despite the protracted nature of statelessness in Thailand and the sheer scale of the problem, the country’s stateless have drawn relatively little attention beyond its borders. Competing for the already marginal interest that different international actors have demonstrated in relation to statelessness to date, they have clearly lost out against other communities. Within the region, they are overshadowed by the larger stateless Rohingya Muslim population of Northern Rakhine state in neighbouring Myanmar, grabbing international headlines – both historically and again recently – thanks to the sheer level of destitution, marginalisation and persecution suffered, plus the challenges faced in relation to the international forced displacement of the group. Elsewhere, stateless communities in other parts of the world have also mobilised more interest or support, including the stateless Kurds in Syria, the Bidoon in the Arab Gulf, the Nubians in Kenya and the persons of Haitian descent in the Caribbean. In relative terms, at least where the interest of the international media and the involvement of international civil society and governmental actors is concerned, Thailand’s hill tribes appear today to be are among the most neglected of the world’s stateless people. As will be discussed in one of the later blogs in this series, this is especially unfortunate given the opportunities that the current legislative framework present in Thailand for the large-scale reduction of statelessness among the hill tribes and to which far more attention and resources should be directed to finally effect real change.
Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

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