Earlier in July, the news media extensively covered the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from the flooded Tham Luang in northern Thailand. After an elite group of divers brought the Wild Boars soccer team safely to dry land, reports surfaced that three of the children were stateless. Long in the shadow of Thailand’s chronic political instability, exhaustive media coverage of the Thai youth soccer team gave critical attention to a serious human rights concern for most of Southeast Asia. This article examines several of the complex challenges facing stateless people both in Thailand and worldwide.

Statelessness is defined by Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as “a person is one who is not recognized as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” According to the Thai Government, there are 488,105 stateless people registered in Thailand, however, the actual number is much more difficult to track. The International Observatory on Statelessness noted that the number of people living in the country could be as high as 3.5 million. The problem is compounded in Thailand’s north, where the country borders Cambodia to the east and Myanmar to the west.

Northern Thailand faces several persistent and interrelated development challenges, which include statelessness, human trafficking, migration, and persons fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar. The region is ethnically diverse, with a mixture of Hmong, Yao, Shan, Lahu, Karen, and Lisi peoples. Statelessness is particularly high in the North, as many peoples originate in areas where national borders have changed over time, complicating questions of national origin. Stateless people in Thailand are unable to seek legal employment, purchase land or property, and travel freely between Thailand’s 76 provinces. Three players of the Wild Boar soccer team and one assistant coach were unable to travel outside their home province of Chiang Rai. Stateless people with limited documentation need permission from their local districts to travel to another district within the province and permission from the Provincial Governor for travel outside the province. Traveling without prior authorization can result in severe punishments, fines, or detention.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that the global stateless population is approximately 10 million people, roughly the population of Denmark and Finland combined. Statelessness arises when there is conflict between human rights, international law and state sovereignty. As Hannah Arendt once observed, “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.”

International law has not created meaningful solutions to the problem of statelessness. For example, stateless people may be protected under human rights instruments, such as the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (which Thailand is not a party to), but these basic rights are far from enforceable and often ignored by sovereign states. Myanmar’s outright refusal to grant basic protections for the Rohingya provides sound evidence of that. States alone choose who gets the fortune of citizenship and those who are excluded. Thailand had introduced regulations that were designed to protect national sovereignty during turbulent political periods. The largest contributor to statelessness was the Revolutionary Party Regulation  No. 337, implemented as a result of national fears over the spread of Communism in the early 1970s. The goal was to prevent children originating from Communist countries from gaining Thai nationality, but in practice did considerable damage. It specified that when a child is born in Thailand to foreign parents, both parents must have permanent residence in Thailand for the child to be granted nationality. This regulation was unfortunately applied retroactively, resulting in the mass revocation of nationality–especially for people in the North.

Thailand later acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which specifies the right of every child to acquire nationality, the process of creating substantive legislation has been difficult–and historically harmful. The end result, seen worldwide, are temporary state and international solutions which take the form of government camps, emergency centers run by NGOs, holding stations, and detention facilities.

Implementation of existing legislation is also a challenge, partly because of vast national capacity gaps. First, many hill tribe people do not speak Thai. Second, each ethnicity has a unique native language, as well as religious customs. Cultural and language differences affect the ability of officials to determine their nationality. NGOs working in the north sometimes are not as well informed about national citizenship requirements. Obtaining Thai nationality is a complicated procedure fraught with many obstacles, including local corruption and rampant discrimination against ethnic minorities. Thailand passed an amendment which aimed to restore those who lost their nationality as a result of its controversial 1972 Declaration. It merely required that people have birth documentation and have evidence of lawful behavior. However, recent research has shown that many hill tribe people believed they were not eligible, did not have the proper legal consultation, or believed they did not have the resources to attain Thai nationality. Many surveyed by researchers noted their applications were still pending or had already been rejected by officials. The average wait time for applicants was more than four years.

At the global level, there is far less attention paid to the challenge of statelessness. Aside from a lack of political will, there is often a lack of attention on the part of human rights advocacy, which results in poorly funded and disseminated campaigns. NGOs do not dedicate the same amount of resources to the issue compared to others. Statelessness is often lost amid related crises such as human trafficking and gross violations that rise to the level of crimes against humanity. Statelessness is a cross-cutting and multi-sectoral challenge, however, the responses at the global level tend to fall under more mainstream development goals, such as poverty, education, healthcare, and decent work. Even the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not provide any specific references to stateless people, rather emphasizing a broader focus on “leaving no one behind.” Until aligned and specific priorities at the international level are matched with political will at the national level, statelessness will remain largely unresolved.

Mark S. Cogan is an Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.