Thai Stateless Soccer Kids were Rescued and Granted Citizenship. But what is Statelessness and what can we do?

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Thailand’s “Wild Boars” teenage soccer team attracted global attention late last month with their successful and dramatic rescue from a flooded cave. On August 8, 25-year-old team coach, Aegpong Zhantaonne, and three members of the team were granted Thai citizenship. In this rescue operation, the painstaking efforts of the rescue workers were aided by one of the trapped children, Adul Sam-on, a stateless teenager who, despite living in poverty, had not given up on his studies. Proficient in five languages, he became the vital link between the trapped kids and the rescue workers.

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While we were excited and gratefully relieved by this rescue operation, we cannot help but ask questions about this idea of being stateless. How can anyone be stateless? Where do these stateless people live? What are their living conditions?Are there really any people in the world today who are without citizenship?

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The answer, sadly, is yes. Moreover, there are actually quite a few stateless people in this world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of “stateless persons” is over 10 million, which is almost as much as the population of Belgium. Thailand has one of the largest stateless populations in the world and, according to the United Nations, some 540,000 stateless people live there.

So, exactly what does stateless mean?

A stateless person is not a citizen of any country. As a stateless individual, this person has no nationality and therefore is not protected by the laws of any country. A stateless person does not enjoy the diplomatic protection of any country in the international community. This is a person living without any legal status or claim to any rights anywhere.

They exist almost all over the world, such as Myanmar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal, Kosovo, Bosnia, Estonia, Latvia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and, of course, Thailand.

How do people become stateless?

There are 5 main reasons:

1. Abandoned babies: babies whose parents cannot be identified are considered stateless unless they are adopted by a citizen.

2. Birth: a child born to a stateless person is also considered to be stateless.

3. Marriage: if someone marries a foreigner according to the laws of that citizen’s country, that person automatically loses his or her original nationality. However, marriages to foreigners often do not provide an automatic right to citizenship on the grounds of marriage.

4. War: This possibility has become one of the most common causes. After the demise of a country’s regime, if there is no new regime to immediately replace the former, many people can become stateless during this period due to the lack of a ruling government.

5. Deprivation: a person who has been legally deprived of his or her nationality for political reasons.

According to one report from UNHCR, over 600,000 people became, and still remain, stateless after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis were denied citizenship by the government of Bangladesh when that country gained its independence in 1971. A 2013 Constitutional Court ruling in the Dominican Republic led to tens of thousands of Dominicans, the vast majority of Haitian descent, being deprived of their nationality, and any of the rights that flowed from it. More than 800,000 ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar were refused nationality under its 1982 citizenship law. As a result, their freedom of movement, the practice of their religion, and even education have all been severely curtailed. Their villages have been burned and they can no longer claim the right to ownership of any property in Myanmar.

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What are some of the difficulties faced by stateless persons?

Stateless persons do not have access to identity documents and are often arrested for that reason. They are routinely denied access to public services such as education and health care. They often cannot find legal employment and thus have no protection under local labor laws. Stateless groups generally face serious discrimination, exclusion and persecution. Because they don’t exist legally, to some extent, they don’t even have names.

What are some ways by which stateless persons can be helped to claim or regain their nationality?

First of all, under United Nations Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone is granted the right to a nationality. UNHCR is a United Nations agency dedicated to addressing the problems of international refugees and stateless persons. Through their strong international influence and experience in humanitarian relief, they provide guidance and support to governments and non-government organizations. Their four guiding activities to address the problem are focused on: Identification, Prevention, Reduction and Protection.

Secondly, of course, by the country governments themselves. Unlike the forced displacement of refugees, the majority of stateless persons do not travel or migrate long distances. On the contrary, often the majority of stateless persons are ethnic minorities who have lived in their place of origin for generations.

Thailand developed a national strategy in 2005 to regulate the legal status and rights of stateless persons, while legislative reforms were implemented in 2008 to strengthen access to citizenship rights for some people who had lived in Thailand for a set time. Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has also been active in advocating and launching a series of initiatives to help school-age children and vulnerable populations acquire Thai citizenship. In addition, the Government has introduced new provisions requiring that stateless persons are to be considered for permanent residence and to have access to health care and education in accordance within the relevant local and state judicial frameworks. UNHCR welcomed these efforts and called on the Government of Thailand to further simplify the procedures for applying for nationality, to expedite the processing and to deploy mobile teams at the local level to provide access to this assistance to stateless persons.

Finally, the power of concerned individuals to make a difference. For example, you can join the UN Refugee Agency’s #Ibelong campaign, sign and share the Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024 at this website. The link is:

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So, why are the problems of so many stateless people worldwide still unsolved?

Well, many different reasons, come into play: historical claims, racial problems, discrimination, politics, wars, — the list goes on. The complications are not something we can go through in just a few minutes time. However, when we hear in the media that our politicians are talking about how they are trying to handle the problems of stateless persons, they often say that the government cannot afford to accept so many stateless persons. They often claimed that “It will create a significant social burden and economic pressure”. You might ask, is it really expensive to grant a stateless person the right of citizenship? Would it really impose a high social burden? Why aren’t the wealthy countries taking on more responsibility to settle these stateless persons?

I didn’t find the exact statistics on the cost of resettling stateless people, but I found some numbers on the costs of refugee resettlement. According to a report from the European Union, EU member countries spend, on average, 12,000 Euros a year on resettling one refugee. This is calculated by including accommodation, food, health care and management. So, let’s use this figure as a reference number.

In 2015, Germany resettled 800,000 refugees, a cost of about 9.6 billion Euros, according to our baseline number. This is equivalent to 0. 1% of the total population of Europe, and 0. 3% of Germany’s GDP at the time. This would seem to be insignificant. Using this approach, the cost of resettling 10 million stateless people would be about 125 billion Euros — or about 143 Billion USD. This is probably 3.75% of Germany’s GDP, or 0.8% of the United States, which sounds like an insignificant amount as well — a drop in the economic and social bucket, so to speak — to these economically powerful countries which claim to be humanitarian. And after all, not all 10 million stateless people will be placed in just one country. Also, considering that many of the stateless people already have their own homes, all they would need is a government issued identity, social recognition and protection under the laws of the country. In terms of those claimed economic costs and social burdens, it should be lower than the same provisions for the same number of refugees.

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So, if the economic problem is not as serious as we thought, at least for the wealthy, developed countries, why do these countries refuse to accept them? Why are so many stateless people not being treated as they deserve?

To begin with, we should recognize the difference between “ability to accept” and “willingness to accept”. Whenever a government claims that it doesn’t have the economic “ability to accept” so many stateless people, it becomes more appropriate to question and discuss whether the real underlying problem is “the willingness to accept”. If a particular government is not willing to accept in the first place, it should be more active in working with international organizations and other countries to find those countries which are “willing to accept”.

If a government agrees that it is “willing to accept”, it then becomes necessary to discuss its “ability to accept”. More often than not, many governments are just using economic or social liabilities to push away the issue. In reality, they don’t want to be blamed for being “not willing to” take these stateless people.

In fact, just like many other social issues, the issue of stateless persons has never been a case of “should be dealt with or not”, but instead one of “how to deal with it”. The existence of stateless persons is an indisputable fact. The former Chief Justice of the United States, Earl Warren, said that “citizenship is a fundamental right of a person, because there is no right higher than the right to enjoy it”. The problem of stateless persons must always be borne by countries. The calculation of their economic burden depends upon the economic power of a particular country, but these costs cannot be avoided. In saying that, some countries have to absorb the burden regardless. It will not just disappear, and sometimes cannot be transferred by simple eviction across borders.

At the end of the day, the problem of statelessness should not depend on an economic cost analysis. We cannot choose to save a life based on the calculation of expenses. The calculation of economic cost is not whether or not to resettle, but on how to enhance international co-operation to improve the situation of those who are stateless. Since this problem cannot be completely avoided in the short term, from a global perspective, countries should collaborate and bear those certain costs which are incurred to help stateless persons to gain, or regain their fundamental rights. How the next steps should be taken, morally and economically, is an important subject that we must think about, discuss and find solutions, and then act upon them. Before those lists of people and countries affected grow any longer.

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