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Why We Help Stateless Children
September 14, 2023

Imagine being born and raised in a country that your family has lived in for generations, and yet you are unable to become a citizen of that country. Imagine your whole family has lived in the same place for as long as anyone can remember but still does not officially belong. Your family has never even originally migrated from another country – they have always been here, yet they have never been recognized as citizens. You’re not an undocumented migrant from another country. There is no other country to “return to.” You simply don’t belong to any country. You are stateless.

“Stateless” is a term for people who don’t have citizenship in any country. Since most of us get citizenship automatically when we’re born—from the country in which we’re born—this isn’t an issue most people ever have to confront. We also generally take for granted the rights and protections that citizenship offers: the ability to attend school and get a legally recognized degree, the ability to get a driver’s license or bank account, the right to travel or move, and more. Without legal recognition of one’s identity, accessing things like education, healthcare, and a job is very hard. People in this situation often have little choice but to live on the margins of society, eking out a living unregistered and working in jobs with little protection from exploitation. This leaves people of working age vulnerable to labor exploitation. When families cannot earn enough to live on, children become vulnerable to sex trafficking as a means of survival.

You might think of statelessness as only happening to refugees or people who are politically exiled from their home country. But there are other ways it can happen, too.

Here’s how statelessness happened in the communities where we work.

In the region where we’re based, there are entire communities of stateless people. Statelessness in these communities rose out of a situation where some ethnic minorities (many of whom belonged to nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes) were historically never recognized as citizens as the country’s borders shifted back and forth over them. Though the borders have been settled for a long time, the laws have been reformed to address such gaps, and Thailand has pledged to end statelessness by 2024, it’s still a challenging process to ensure everyone is appropriately documented. Many stateless people have inherited a generational issue where they lack proper documentation to apply for citizenship. Living on the margins of society and lacking access to education, they are often unaware of the rights to which they are entitled, or the application process had previously felt so challenging they had given up trying. 

In recent years, the government has worked to make the process easier, for example, by launching an e-registration process to ensure all newborns born in Thailand, regardless of parents’ nationalities, are registered and receive birth certificates. Nevertheless, it will still take time to reach everyone and help them navigate the pathways to accessing the rights to which they’re entitled. 

Here’s how we help stateless children:

  • First: Statelessness is one of the recognized risk factors we use to identify vulnerable children we can accept into our child trafficking prevention programs. When a stateless child is accepted into our programs, we provide scholarships to help them stay in school. This relieves a lot of the financial burden on their families as they don’t need to worry about education costs, such as school uniforms, transportation, supplies, etc.

  • Second: There is a tiered system with different levels of legal recognition between undocumented and full citizenship. In select cases, our staff may help with the application process to get our students’ legal documentation, apply for a higher level of legal recognition, or even apply for citizenship. This facilitates getting our students into the system, attaining formal recognition, and accessing greater rights so they can participate more effectively in society. It’s also a form of protection so that if they ever encounter exploitation, they have a path forward for seeking justice. In cases beyond our staff capacity, we refer them to other organizations that can more effectively handle this particular kind of legal advocacy.

  • Third: We have conducted a large project, in cooperation with local schools and government agencies, to identify and legally register other stateless children in the community. We reached more than 600 children in 2022 alone.

  • Finally, we conduct outreach to vulnerable communities, continually spreading awareness about their legal and human rights and providing advice as needed.

Statelessness is a very extreme case for those who are most vulnerable to traffickers—namely, people who become desperate to meet their deepest needs. Children desperate for affection become vulnerable to online predators who pretend to offer that. Families desperate to survive become vulnerable to anyone offering a way to survive, no matter how exploitative it is. Legal documentation of one’s existence is one of the most basic forms of protection one can have. We’re working to help ensure every child is counted because every child matters.


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