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Law Clinics Empower Stateless Children in Thailand

There are 44,000 stateless children in Chiang Rai.

March 2012: Arbiew, 14, doesn’t like working in the cornfield in Thailand’s summer heat, but she loves school and knows that if she doesn’t help her father, her family won’t have enough money to afford to send her.

Even though her employer pays her only 60 baht a day, just half of what her father earns, and she only works on weekends and other days off from school, the little extra income Arbiew earns is essential. While education in Thailand is free up to grade 12, things like sports uniforms, computer studies, transportation, and food are not, and Arbiew has a 10-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother who are also keen to attend school.

Part of the reason Arbiew’s family finds itself struggling financially is that they are stateless: 6 years ago they migrated from Myanmar to Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand in search of a better life. In part they found it: their boss has provided them with a simple shelter next to the fields where they work and a television and employment throughout the year.

None of the 5 family members, however, has legal status. For Arbiew’s parents, being illegal residents means that they cannot look for better-paying jobs in the formal sector. For the 3 children it means that they may not be able to pursue a higher education.

Learning how to apply for Thai citizenship

Fortunately for Arbiew and her family, in 2010 Plan Thailand launched a programme with the potential to transform their lives: law clinics teach child and youth participants about their legal rights, specifically their right to apply for a birth certificate under the Civil Registration Act of 2008. Since that 1 piece of paper is the first step to becoming a Thai citizen and to acquiring all the rights that this status entails, it is crucial to have.

Abe Pearpha, Plan Thailand’s Universal Birth Registration Manager explains, “Legal status is a key precondition for children to enjoy equal protection under the law and equal access to government-provided services.”

Already 120 youth leaders from 9 schools in Chang Rai and Chang Mai provinces have been trained in the steps necessary to navigate Thailand’s complex bureaucracy. They’re now equipped with the knowledge and confidence they need to spread awareness about child rights among at least some of the estimated 44,000 stateless children in Chang Rai and their parents.

Empowered by her new knowledge about her rights, Arbiew has high hopes that her future will shine, not under the blue skies, but under the roof of her new grade 8 classroom. Her vision doesn’t end there, though: ultimately, she aims to be a doctor.