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Stolen futures: The stateless children of Burmese asylum seekers

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On the day that the child of a Burmese asylum seeker is born in a Thai hospital, the birth record is removed. In most countries infants are registered at birth. Since citizenship and nationality are necessary prerequisites for individuals to enjoy all of their other human rights, removing the birth records of these children robs them of their future. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern regarding inconsistency in Thai procedures for issuing birth certificates to displaced Burmese children. Far more can and must be done to secure the possibility of a better life for these and other stateless children around the world.
Families fleeing arbitrary arrest, forced labor, rape, and killing by the Burmese military arrive at the border of Thailand with hopes of leading a life free of human rights abuses, but they are prohibited from gaining refugee status due to Thailand's narrow definition of "refugee". Only an estimated 150,000 refugees have been allowed to register to live in refugee camps, leaving more than one million others to live illegally both inside, but primarily outside, the refugee camps. Because Thai law does not recognize the children as citizens, they are subject to hazardous or exploitive labor conditions, sexual and other abuse, denial of education and healthcare, and other violations of their basic human rights. As grim as the current situation for children is, the future looks even worse.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15, guarantees everyone the right to a nationality. It is usually granted on the basis of a person's place of birth (jus solis) or on the basis of their descent (jus sanguinis), but it is a right that the children of Burmese asylum seekers born in Thailand cannot enjoy. Even though Thailand has signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child, it has reservations on Article 7 and 22 concerning registering of birth and granting citizenship to the refugee children, who are viewed first and foremost as illegal aliens. Therefore, even though the Burmese displaced children are born on Thai soil, they are not granted Thai citizenship.

Likewise, the Burmese government disavows its responsibility and refuses to give citizenship to children of Burmese parents born in Thailand. The reasons for refusing the Burmese citizenship are: 1) the children do not have birth certificates; 2) the parents have left Burma illegally; and/or 3) the parents themselves were never provided with proper citizenship papers. Neither recognized by the Burmese government nor wanted by the Thai government, many of the children are stateless and live their lives in limbo.

There are no accurate estimates of stateless children in Thailand. The reproductive health situation for Burmese parents is generally poor and while some babies are born in state hospitals, countless others are delivered at home. Even though the Thai Ministry of Education is supposed to issue the Regulation on Evidence of a Child's Birth for School Admission in honor of Article 29 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, not all of the children receive this document needed to attend Thai schools. One stateless child stated, "I don't want to pick chilies and onions in the plantation. I want to go to school. I want to wear a school uniform proudly and learn the materials in a proper classroom like them [referring to the Thai students]." When children can attend Thai schools, they are unable to attain an official degree or certificate permitting the young person to pursue further education or to find a job.

In Mae Sot, one of the border towns between Thailand and Burma, migrant families live in squalid conditions. Lacking prerequisites necessary to becoming successful members of society, many of them are forced to work long hours as seasonal agricultural workers, as domestic help in households, and as laborers in clothing and plastic factories; others scavenge for plastic and paper scraps. Still others must forage for food, beg, and sell themselves into prostitution as they struggle to escape their dire circumstances. Many of the children are depressed and hostile. Some have developed self-hatred or displaced their strong feelings towards the Thai. They are also exposed to violence in their neighborhoods; and are victims of domestic abuse.

The U.S. State Department has reported that child labor in Thailand is a huge problem. Child domestic workers have been raped by their owners. Trafficking is another issue affecting stateless children and youth. A thirteen year old girl, who had run away from her owner in Bangkok to Mae Sot, recounted her story, "I was sold for less than 800 baht (about $20 U.S. dollars) to work as a housemaid in Bangkok. I have to get up before five to start preparing for the shop. She (her owner) made me eat 5-10 chilies to wake me up. I don't get to sleep until I cleaned up everything (which she usually finishes around 11 p.m. or midnight). I ran away because they were going to sell me to work in sex trade."

Recognition as refugees would be a significant step for these children, allowing them to access humanitarian aid and necessary services. But even refugee status is not sufficient since refugee children continue to face an insecure environment and a bleak future of being unable to access higher education, health care, and employment.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

  • The Royal Thai Government grant citizenship to children born in Thailand and the Government of Burma grant citizenship to Burmese children who return without having obtained Thai citizenship.

  • The Royal Thai Government grant refugee status to all the legitimate asylum seekers.

  • The Royal Thai Government allow international organizations, especially the UNHCR and UNICEF, to provide full assistance to all refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons, especially children.

  • UNHCR and UNICEF continue to press the Royal Thai Government on the importance of providing stateless children access to education, health care, and adequate nutrition.
This report is based on research conducted by Wynn Lei Lei Nyane under a grant from the Center for Global Health Scholarship from the University of Virginia and the Harrison Undergraduate Excellence Award. She started her research in Thailand in the summer of 2002 investigating health and living conditions of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers and is continuing this work as a summer intern at Refugees International.