The invisibility of the invisible lives: Being stateless in Thailand in times of the COVID-19 pandemic
In Thailand, the COVID-19 pandemic has increasingly deepened social inequality and worsened the living conditions of stateless people who have long been left unattended, even before the pandemic. The pandemic has played a crucial role in severely jeopardising the lives of stateless persons and making them even more invisible. This urgency raises questions about what recommendations Thailand should consider to protect and acknowledge those who are stateless.
553,969 people are registered in Thailand as ‘stateless’. Among that number, nearly 297,000 are children. Though these are the only visible ones in the eyes of the state, it is believed that this number can surpass a million people. Since the Cold War period, Thailand has strengthened security measures along its borders due to the Communist insurgency. This led to the country’s first Nationality Act of 1965 which organised and separated ‘Thai’ and ‘non-Thai’ people. Stateless people in Thailand fall into various conditions. In the north and west of Thailand, many hill tribe minorities, such as the Karen, the Akha, the Hmong, the Mien, the Lahu, the Lisu and the Palaung, were excluded from acquiring nationality and citizenship because the government did not categorise them as ‘Thai’ in the first place. The hill tribe minorities spoke different languages, lived far away in mountainous areas on the border with Myanmar, and remained in distant contact with the city.
Some stateless people have lived in the areas under Siamese control for many generations. Siam was the former name of Thailand, which used to include some parts of present-day Myanmar and Cambodia. Therefore, when the borderlines were demarcated, those members of the Siamese diaspora became stateless. In addition, another group of people living in statelessness are individuals who entered Thailand or were born after 1992 to undocumented immigrants, according to the second Nationality Act, approved in 1992 at the end of the Cold War. Many are children of previous stateless generations who fled from civil wars and conflicts in Thailand’s neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most of them have settled down in northern Thailand and work as minimum-wage income labourers.
Although many people are registered with the government and given a ‘pink card’ that provides a thirteen-digit number like their fellow Thais, the card clearly identifies them as a ‘Person with No Registration Status’. Born and raised without citizenship documents and deemed stateless in the eyes of the government through the pink cards, stateless people have faced social security problems and human rights violations. They must stay within the district they are registered in and are not legally allowed to move or travel outside other districts. Every time, they must apply for a permit through bureaucratic procedures that require the approval of the Chief of District. Stateless people do not have much choice but to study, work and live within their registered district. Thus, the Thai government is violating fundamental rights and freedoms stipulated in ICCPR and ICESCR, of which Thailand is a signatory state.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant catalyst that continues to deepen social inequality and human rights discrimination that especially affect stateless persons in Thailand. The government has deployed special measures, including travel restrictions, by claiming that mobility would cause the spread of the virus. The number of health and control checkpoints has increased, specifically in remote districts. Identification cards are required to pass the checkpoint, and stateless people holding pink cards are likely to face discriminating questions and treatment from state security authorities. When lockdown restrictions were enforced, many stateless people and their families encountered shortages of food, medicine, and other emergency packages. Those who work in the service and industrial sectors lost their jobs. Likewise, stateless children dropped out of school because their parents could no longer afford the living and studying expenses.
Even though stateless persons are given access to medical facilities and services free of charge, few realise that these rights exist. Similarly, the vaccination programme in Thailand has been made difficult and inaccessible for them, as it prioritises Thai citizens. Many stateless persons found the vaccination application complicated, since it requires information beyond the thirteen-digit registration number on their pink card. Some could not read or speak the Thai language properly, resulting in a huge barrier that excluded them from vaccination applications. Moreover, stateless people were not qualified for the COVID-19 government emergency programmes, such as the half-half co-payment scheme and the cash voucher scheme issued by the Thai government, due to their non-Thai status. This reveals how unfairly the Thai government has treated people of different nationalities.
Thailand should urgently take action to improve the state’s humanitarian accountability. Firstly, it is crucial for the relevant Thai authorities to rapidly operate and improve an active nationality verification and citizenship application for those living stateless. In addition, the government may collaborate closely with transnational and local non-governmental organisations. Secondly, it is time for the state to critically follow the international standards by signing and ratifying the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to finally accept that the situation of stateless persons is real and they are in urgent need of protection. Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that Thailand has joined the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and taken part in the #IBelong global campaign to end statelessness by 2024, also co-founding its Group of Friends.
The post-pandemic future is even more challenging. Stateless persons are already coloured as a threat to national security through the eyes of the public. For instance, the nationality verification process, which requires DNA proof of ancestry, remains financially inaccessible. This negative public attitude and control have built a high wall segregating stateless people and preventing them from accessing fundamental rights they deserve as any person living in the land they were born or have lived all their life. The COVID-19 is a lesson learned for the Thai government to reconsider their unfair legislative and administrative practices towards stateless people. It is time to ensure that everyone should be treated equally without discrimination, no matter which card one holds, be it a pink card or the Thai national identification card. No one should be left invisible.
Saittawut Yutthaworakool is currently a Social Studies teacher in a secondary school in Bangkok, Thailand. He holds a double Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation from Mahidol University, Thailand, and the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Prior to his teaching career, Saittawut had extensive experience in many public, private, and not-for-profit organisations. His areas of interest include human rights norms and mechanisms, gender/sexuality, and politics of development across South and Southeast Asia. In his free time, he prefers cultural/ecotourism and learning new languages.