Hidden in Plain Sight

Group for Children director Adun Duangdeetaweeratana

Group for Children director Adun Duangdeetaweeratana

Along the Thai-Myanmar border is a vast population living without any legal documentation recognizing their citizenship in either country. The reasons are varied and complex.

Many people have been displaced by war or environmental or economic crisis. Some ethnic minority communities have lived for generations high in the mountains, unaware of the need for legal documents. Whatever the reason, many – especially children born during decades of mobility – have either lost or failed to ever receive legal documentation, leaving them with no claim to citizenship, anywhere.

As a result, they struggle to access basic health and education services, shelter, and protection from exploitation. Partners Asia provides a wide-range of support to these communities to organize around basic needs and to advocate for their legal status.

In northern Thailand, we are providing technical training to three partner organizations from Chiang Mai, Fang and Mae Hong Son provinces to undertake Participatory Action Research (PAR) on the social, administrative and legal barriers to citizenship. PAR offers a unique approach for local organizations to assess the realities of their own communities, articulate them clearly to others and make recommendations for change.

The first phase of this research has already given us a first-hand glimpse of some of the harsh realities faced by the men, women and children living without legal documentation and their efforts to seek a more secure future:

“When I was in Myanmar I always had to hide and lived in fear constantly worrying about people discovering me. Sometimes, if the Burmese [soldiers] came, I had to hide in the forest. Because of this, I decided to come to Thailand with my very young son. The journey took about six days by walking and getting rides from the Thais who were buying wood in Myanmar. I arrived in Thailand at Chiang Mai province and have worked on orchards for more than 20 years.”

Next Steps

This month, the community-based researchers will complete important training so they can analyze the data collected and learn how to effectively present their findings. Going forward, the researchers will provide recommendations for practical projects, which help people understand the laws, organize around their basic needs, and press for their legal status.

Breaking Ground and Building for the Future

Legal documents, and ultimately citizenship, impact the opportunities and outcomes of people’s lives. Those living without these official records are trapped in cycles of systemic abuse and perpetual poverty.

It is vitally important to understand the barriers to obtaining legal documents, the citizenship laws, policies and administrative processes in each country in order to create effective interventions for those living as dual non-citizens. Participatory Action Research gives local leaders and their communities’ confidence in their local knowledge and encourages their “seat at the table” with a wide-range of stakeholders, collaborating towards viable interventions and successful outcomes.

Photo credits: Eileen Moncoeur, Amanda Mowry