Children Without Country

MAE SOT, Thailand – Like other children in his neighbourhood in this northwestern Thai district, eight-year-old Pyae Phyo Aung wants to go to school so he can learn how to read and write.

But he cannot get admission to a Thai school because his parents have not gotten him a Thai birth certificate even though he was born here. Although they are not about to admit it, it is likely that his parents are illegal migrants, which is why they have not dared to register the birth of their son.

Pyae Phyo’s parents, however, want their son to have a proper education so he can have a better future. They themselves had fled their native Burma in search of a better life – only to end up as scavengers in a big dumpsite here. They manage to earn 150 baht ($4.40) a day, probably more than what they would be earning back in Burma, but they have bigger dreams for their boy.

That, of course, would be tricky if he is unable to get into a Thai school soon and he grows up in this country. For now, though, Pyae Phyo cannot be bothered by such details and knows only that he will be a schoolboy soon. Waving his hand towards a nearby migrant learning centre, he says enthusiastically, “I’m going to that school there!”

There are many ‘stateless’ children like Pyae Phyo in Mae Sot. And like him, they can attend only the NGO education centres for migrant children. These centres do what they can to ensure the children learn as much as their peers in Thailand. But since these centres are not recognised by Thai education authorities, the certificates they give out will not suffice for their graduates to continue on in ‘regular’ schools in Thailand, including universities. Says Aye Aye Mar, founder of the Social Action for Women (SAW) that runs shelters and education centres for Burmese women and children: “A very low percentage of (stateless) children can continue their studies in Thai schools.”

No nation to call home

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a stateless person as one “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. In Southeast Asia, children are among the millions of individuals who are not recognised by any country as its citizen. Many of these children are without a nationality and the rights that come with it simply because they had not been registered at birth.

“Most of these children are denied basic human rights,” says Kanchana Di-ut, programme officer at MAP Foundation, an NGO campaigning for the rights of migrant workers in Thailand. “They’re denied birth registration and certificates, which are essential to have access to basic education and health services.”

“Nationality is important because it determines what rights and responsibilities apply to a person,” says the U.S.-based Youth Advocate Programme International in a 2002 publication on stateless children. “Nationality confers citizenship and citizenship is a fundamental building block to other human rights – it is ‘the right to have rights’.”

This is why when the ASEAN adopted a new charter and announced it was going to form a human-rights body, organisations working for the rights of stateless children pricked up their ears. After all, Thailand is not the only member of the regional grouping that has a surfeit of stateless people. Burma is another, as well as Malaysia and Cambodia, and even Vietnam, albeit in a much lesser scale.

In fact, Sriprapha Petcharamesree, director at the Office of Human Rights Studies and Social Development in Thailand’s Mahidol University, says that the issue is a regional problem that must be addressed at a regional level.

Rights activists apparently agree, making them look forward to ASEAN’s planned rights body. Says Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma: “We greatly welcome the implementation of the (ASEAN human rights body), which is supposed to promote and protect the rights of women and children.”

At the same time, though, he echoes other rights advocates in saying that the lack of any enforcement mechanism and the ASEAN policy of ‘non-interference’ in the domestic affairs of members could make its rights body ineffective. “We should wait and see how (it) is implemented,” he says.

Policy vs. practice

For sure, policy and practice are oftentimes worlds apart. Thailand, for instance, is already a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It even has a policy of issuing birth certificates to all children born here. In reality, however, poor foreign migrants have a difficult time obtaining birth documents for their children who are born in Thailand.

Oftentimes, the main reason for this is that the parents are illegals and do not have proper documents themselves. Without legal papers, they shy away from government-run institutions, including clinics, for fear of being arrested and deported. The mothers-to-be among them go without checkups unless they come across NGO-run health centres; when it is time for them to give birth, they rely on untrained midwives who do not bother to tell them where to obtain birth certificates for their newborn children. That is, if they would have the courage to do so at all.

Yet while this situation is hardly a secret, Thai authorities have done little to ensure that even children of illegal migrants who are born on Thai soil will be registered at birth. According to some activists, anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 babies are born to illegal migrants in this country every year. The Thai government, however, would rather not do anything that could encourage even more illegal migrants – especially from nearby Burma – to head for Thailand.

Malaysia may be thinking the same way. It may not have hundreds of thousands of stateless children like Thailand, but activists say its own comparative figure is significant enough. That count includes the estimated 36,000 children born to Indonesian workers at Malaysia’s palm oil plantations. The community of undocumented Filipino migrants in Sabah, meanwhile, is believed to have even more children. Malaysia is a not-so-welcoming host as well to the Rohingya from Burma, who are not recognised as citizens of their homeland – or anywhere else, for that matter.

A Muslim ethnic minority in Burma’s western Rakhine state, the Rohingya used to enjoy full citizenship before the 1963 military takeover there. Today, as ‘non-citizens’, Rohingya are reportedly unable to sit with other Burmese students in class. At Sittwe University, the only higher education institution in Rakhine, Rohingya students cannot take up medicine or engineering. And yet they are also barred from enrolling in a university outside of their home state.

While the Rohingya’s situation is unique, the discrimination that they face in their homeland and elsewhere is experienced by other stateless people in other countries. Child-rights advocates, for example, point out that by the non-registration of children of illegal migrants, host governments are unable to prepare and make available the services that these children may need, and where they should be available. Then again, it could well be that host governments have no intention of giving the offspring of illegal migrants access to such services in the first place.

Pranom Somwong of the Malaysian NGO Worker Hub for Change says that just like Pyae Phyo here in Mae Sot, stateless children in Malaysia are unable to attend government schools there. Neither are they able to avail of the services in government clinics, she says.

Here in this border town, children of Burmese migrants usually go to the Mae Tao Clinic, a health-care centre run by exiled Burmese. But there are times when the migrants encounter difficulties in availing of its services. A grandmother chanced upon by this writer there says that the bawling three-year-old on her lap had malaria and was running a high fever. But she says she was unable to bring her granddaughter earlier to the clinic because she had heard that police were arresting and deporting undocumented workers.

It’s also not uncommon for the stateless children to become undocumented workers themselves. With little chance of getting a good education, many of them go to work at an early age instead. Ma Nyo, for example, had managed to reach Grade 4 in Burma, before she came to Mae Sot with her parents. Now 13, she has stopped school and now works alongside her parents at a dumpsite just outside this town.

Non-existent’ means exploitable

Yet Ma Nyo may even be one of the luckier ones. According to activists, stateless youngsters who seek work in big cities through agents are likely to end up as victims of exploitation. Sometimes, criminal elements resort to kidnapping since there are no official records of these children anyway. The Mirror Foundation, which works with hill tribe people in northern Thailand, has documented several cases of stateless children disappearing from their homes and being forced to beg or sell flowers in big Thai cities. There are also reports of stateless children being trafficked to Malaysia and Vietnam under the guise of adoption.

Rights advocates argue that since the issue of stateless children is “borderless”, ASEAN should at the very least have discussions on it and come up with common solutions. They note that while Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter says member nations shall “respect…the right of every Member State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion, and coercion”, it also emphasises “enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting the common interest of ASEAN”.

In the meantime, activists here take some comfort with the softening of some schools, which are beginning to grant admission to stateless children.

Last January, the Bangkok Post had also reported that the moves were underway to ensure that Thailand’s “140,000 stateless children” would be provided “the same basic education as that given to Thai children”. According to the English-language daily, Deputy Education Minister Chaiwat Bannawat had said the education ministry was drafting an Office of the Prime Minister regulation towards this end.

Months later, the regulation has yet to appear. Still, this has made little difference to Poe Ei San, a Grade 6 student at the Children Development Centre here. It’s even apparent that she believes she will be able to attend a Thai university one day. Her mother also has great expectations of her and encourages her to work hard.

Sitting in her family’s tiny hut, the 11-year-old is the picture of optimism. “I must be an engineer someday,” she says confidently. “Who says I can’t be?”