BANGKOK (REUTERS) - The UN refugee agency welcomed on Thursday (Aug 9) a decision by Thailand to grant Thai citizenship to three boys and their soccer coach from among a group of 13 who were rescued from a flooded cave last month.
The 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, from the "Wild Boars" soccer team were catapulted into the international spotlight after they became trapped inside the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
Ekapol and 12 boys had gone to explore the caves on June 23, when a rainy-season downpour flooded the cave system and trapped them underground. They survived for nine days on water dripping from rocks before they were discovered.
A dramatic, international rescue effort ended on July 10 when they were all brought out safely after an ordeal lasting more than two weeks.
The rescue highlighted the plight of Thailand's "stateless" people, who are often denied rights and opportunities because they are not citizens.
Three of the boys and coach Ekapol were considered stateless, even though they were born in Thailand, until local authorities checked their qualifications, including birth certificates, and approved their requests for Thai citizenship.
The four were granted citizenship and given national identification cards on Wednesday.
"They have all the qualifications," said Somsak Kanakam, chief officer of Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai. "All children born in Thailand must have Thai birth certificates in order to qualify for Thai citizenship."
Citizenship requests for about 20 other people, most of them children, were also approved, Somsak added.
"By providing these boys and their coach with citizenship, Thailand has given them the chance to both dream of a brighter future and to reach their full potential," Carol Batchelor, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Adviser on Statelessness, said in a statement.
"By granting them citizenship, Thailand has provided them with a formal identity that will pave the way for them to achieve their aspirations," she said.
Many stateless people in Thailand come from areas where national borders have changed, leaving their nationality in question.
Some belong to "hill tribes" living in remote areas with limited access to information about nationality procedures, including on how to apply for citizenship, according to the UNHCR.
The cave ordeal highlighted the plight of people from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar living in Thailand who are denied some rights and opportunities because they are not citizens.
More than 486,000 people are registered as stateless, according to official data. Of that number 146,269 are younger than 18 years old.
The 12 rescued boys returned to school this week after all but one of them spent nine days in a Buddhist monastery, a tradition for Thai males who experience adversity.