Thai cave rescue draws attention to country's 'stateless' children

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thai cave, which gripped the country and the world, has also drawn attention to the plight of “stateless” children in the country.

At least three of the boys, as well as their coach, are refugees. Like tens of thousands of others who sought refuge in Thailand, they have few rights and legal protections, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, campaigners said.

“They are not recognized as citizens of any country and they are typically poor, with restricted right to travel, work or access benefits,” said Matcha Phoru-in, an activist who works with undocumented refugees in northern Thailand.

“Children face difficulty in getting into schools and in completing their education. Boys may be sent to Buddhist temples or church shelters because the parents think they are better off there,” she said.

There are about 487,000 stateless persons registered with the Thai government, of whom 146,269 are under the age of 18, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency.

Activists say the actual number may be 3 million.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out legal obligations to protect refugees.

Thailand has, however, pledged to develop a screening system for refugees to combat trafficking, and to increase their access to education, healthcare and birth registration.

The country has also committed to end the detention of refugee children.

Worldwide, a record 68 million people have been forced to leave their homes, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Children make up more than half that number.

A survey released by UK-based Save the Children last month showed that refugee children in Bangkok and Jakarta are at heightened risk of trafficking and forced labor.

To qualify for citizenship, the child must be born in Thailand, and the parents must belong to a recognized ethnic group, and have lived in the country for several years.

On Tuesday night, the last of the “Wild Boars” soccer team was rescued from the Tham Luang cave, near the border with Myanmar, ending a 17-day ordeal that made front-page headlines across the world.

Among the highlights of the rescue was a stateless boy who communicated in English with the divers who found them. Local media reported he was born in Myanmar and had moved to Thailand.

While Thailand’s citizenship policy offers several options to refugees, the conditions can be strict, said Save the Children’s Ratirose Supaporn.

“The paperwork can also be confusing for people with little education, and implementation at the local level can take time,” she said.

“That means people can remain undocumented for a long time.”