Citizenship Rights for Thai Hill Tribes

Today we had the chance to meet with a human rights organization that is based in the United States but has offices around the world working on various initiatives, from fighting sex trafficking in India to ensuring land rights for widows in Uganda.  Here in Thailand, the organization is working to help the marginalized members of Thai hill tribes obtain citizenship rights.

The Thai office opened about ten years ago in Bangkok, with the goal of rescuing girls who had been sex trafficked.  But the organization quickly realized that many of the girls being trafficked were coming from the rural hill tribes in northern Thailand–the reason being that the girls–and their families–faced economic vulnerability due to their lack of citizenship rights.  So the organization changed course and relocated its operations to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, where it helps members of the hill tribes obtain proof of citizenship.

The hill tribes are groups of ethnic minorities that live across national borders in the highlands of southeast Asia.  Each has its own customs, clothing, language, and religion, and they generally live traditional lifestyles focused on agriculture.  In Thailand, there are six major hill tribes–the Mien, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Akha–and they number somewhere between 600,000 to 1 million people.  Some of the hill tribe groups have come to Thailand in the past few decades, in many cases fleeing as refugees from Burma, but many of the hill tribe groups have been living in Thailand for over a century.

Under Thai law, members of hill tribes are eligible for Thai citizenship, yet many lack documentation establishing that they are citizens, and obtaining the documentation requires financial resources and enough education to navigate Thailand’s complex rules and regulations.  But without proof of citizenship (in the form of a certificate of citizenship and a Thai ID card), hill tribe members are considered to be living illegally in Thailand, and they cannot work or own land.  They are also not permitted to travel outside of their home districts, have limited access to education, and no access to healthcare.  As a result, hill tribe members lacking proof of citizenship are essentially trapped into a cycle of poverty.  This poverty makes them especially vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of abuse or exploitation.  Helping members of the hill tribes to obtain proof of citizenship is a preventative measure that can reduce this vulnerability.

The human rights organization we met with has a staff of Thai lawyers and social workers who assist members of the hill tribes with navigating the bureaucratic maze to obtain proof of citizenship.  The organization gave us a short presentation about their work, and we had a chance to ask questions, as well as meet the staff, many of whom are themselves members of hill tribes.  To date, the organization has secured citizenship rights for more than 10,000 hill tribe members.

John and I were really moved and impressed by the staff and the work they are doing.  If you’d like any more information about this organization or if you’re interested in supporting their work, please send me a private note and I’ll be happy to connect you with them.  We haven’t mentioned them by name in this post due to the sensitive nature of their work.


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