Thai cave rescue: Stateless survivors to get help to become Thai citizens

The team's coach Ekkapol Chantawong (left), along with two of the boys, Pornchai Kamluang (centre) and Adul Sam-on, are among the 500,000 stateless people in Thailand who have to endure limitations in many aspects of their life. PHOTOS: FACEBOOK

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Two of the 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach who were rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand will receive legal assistance in the nationality verification process and if all goes well, they could expect to receive Thai citizenship in six months.

Thailand's Interior Ministry and the Children and Youth Department have confirmed that coach Ekkapol Chantawong and two of the boys, Pornchai Kamluang and Adul Sam-on, are stateless following media reports of their plight and the difficulties faced by 500,000 stateless people living in Thailand.

The authorities have promised to provide the trio legal assistance in the nationality verification process. If everything goes smoothly, all of them will have Thai nationality within six months.

The stateless people, mostly ethnic minorities living near the border areas, have to endure restrictions in many aspects of their life because they are denied some rights and opportunities.

Activists said many stateless people have to wait for a decade to get Thai citizenship because of the slow verification process.

Surapong Kongchantuk, a prominent activist on human rights and nationality issues, said that although the Thai government has provided basic rights including compulsory education and healthcare for all people in Thailand, the lack of citizenship meant that stateless people are denied access to many fundamental rights, such as travelling abroad, getting higher education or employment in some careers. As a result, they do not have many opportunities to improve their lives.

According to Surapong, stateless people can ask for nationality verification at their local administrative organisation in order to acquire Thai citizenship. They must provide proof of their birth and lineage and that they were born to a Thai national parent. Ethnic minorities born in Thailand are eligible to get Thai nationality.

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Otherwise, they can submit a bachelor's degree or diploma or ask for a special grant from the Thai government to get Thai nationality, he said.

Despite this, Surapong said the procedure to verify and seek Thai nationality is slow and complicated because local administrative organisations often do not have enough staff to deal with the overwhelming number of requests for nationality verification.

Some people have to wait for more than 10 years to get Thai nationality and receive a Thai citizen identity card.

Legal Status Network Foundation chairman Santiphong Moonphong also said that due to the complications and the long period of time it takes to get Thai nationality, many stateless young people lose opportunities.

In the case of Coach Ekkapol, despite having been praised for helping his young charges survive inside the cave for nine days before they were discovered by rescuers, he cannot yet gain his full coaching qualifications. Ekkapol is an ethnic Tai Lue.

Ekkapol's stateless status - along with that of the two boys - also means that they are unlikely to be able to accept an invitation from the Manchester United football club to visit next season. The boys also cannot become professional football players because of their status.

Santiphong said he hoped that the nationality status of the three survivors from the Tham Luang cave would bring the problems of stateless people to public attention and secure prompt solutions from the government.

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