Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The truly homeless

Stateless, With Borders All Around

MAE AI, Thailand

HIDDEN in the back corners of the world is a scattered population of millions of nobodies, citizens of nowhere, forgotten or neglected by governments, ignored by census takers.

Many of these stateless people are among the world’s poorest; all are the most disenfranchised. Without citizenship, they often have no right to schooling, health care or property ownership. Nor may they vote or travel outside their countries — even, in some cases, outside the towns where they live.

They are stateless for many reasons — migration, refugee flight, racial or ethnic exclusion, the quirks of history — but taken together, these noncitizens, according to one report, “are among the most vulnerable segments of humanity.”

They have few avenues for redressing abuses, and little access to resources that could help them build better lives. They have few advocates, because human rights groups tend to focus on the types of abuses they suffer — trafficking, exploitation, discrimination — rather than the root of those conditions, their statelessness.

In their variety, they share the lack of a basic human need: a place to call home.

About two million of them are in Thailand, mostly members of ethnic minority groups and hill tribes, perhaps the largest stateless population in the world. Many were born in remote areas on the border with Myanmar, and lack documents to prove that they, or one of their parents, were born in Thailand.

“Everything is affected, all my rights,” said Saidaeng Kaewtham, 38, who works as a gardener. “I can’t travel, go to the hospital, do business or get an education.”

The number of people in similar straits is rising today with the shifting populations of a globalized world. The emergence of new democracies is also a factor, particularly in Africa, where the granting or removal of citizenship is used as a political weapon.

By the most common count, there are 15 million stateless people in the world, but by its nature, this is a number nobody can know for certain.

The stateless include some 200,000 Urdu-speaking Bihari in scores of refugee settlements in Bangladesh. Also, there are members of the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim ethnic minority from western Myanmar. More than 100,000 have fled in recent decades to Bangladesh, where they live in camps or on the streets.

They also include tens of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian children in the Malaysian state of Sabah, victims of laws that, in effect, deny them birth certificates.

In Thailand, the government has embarked on an unusual and ambitious program to determine the citizenship rights of its stateless people, checking documents and interviewing witnesses and local elders.

The only documentation Boon Phonma, 43, could offer was a birth date she said was scribbled on a palm leaf by her mother. She said she was turned away by officials.

She then presented officials with the results of a DNA test that she said was accepted as proof of her right to Thai citizenship. “I found out I have a whole big family here, 335 people,” she said. “I am a Thai confirmed, a Thai since birth.”


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