Notes from the Field

From Thailand: Free DNA Testing for Stateless Tsunami Survivors

June 6, 2007

Although much of the physical damage from the tsunami has been repaired, thousands of Thais still face debilitating economic, legal, and psychological hurdles. Since February 2006, The Asia Foundation’s Tsunami Rights and Legal Aid Referral Center (T-LAC) program, with support from The World Bank and the Japan Social Development Fund, has provided free legal counseling and services throughout affected provinces in Thailand. Through its extensive outreach efforts, door-to-door canvassing is conducted to identify the needs of individual survivors as well as community groups.

In Ranong province, located along the Andaman Sea, the Foundation’s T-LAC team learned that hundreds of children and adults born there were not considered Thai citizens because they are not registered with Thai authorities. Although legally entitled to citizenship status, these individuals have lived without access to their legal rights and therefore do not qualify for post-tsunami benefits administered by the government. Moreover, their “˜stateless’ status prevents them from accessing health care and other welfare services, seek legal employment, receive school diplomas, own land, vote, or travel outside of their province.

Many in Thailand fail to register births and marriages with government offices. One grandmother, a Thai citizen with official identification documents, explained that she could not afford the high cost of the local hospital, so instead had all 8 of her children at home with the help of a village midwife. Since she never officially registered the births, her children didn’t receive birth certificates and are not considered Thai citizens — nor are her 13 grandchildren. In response to her situation, and many like her in this community, The Asia Foundation’s T-LAC staff began to inform these stateless people of their legal rights, but also realized that a much more efficient strategy was necessary to ensure that a large number of people would be granted citizenship.

From May 18-25, 2007, under the guidance of the Ministry of Interior and in collaboration with the Central Institute of Forensic Science and the Ministry of Justice, The Asia Foundation’s T-LAC program organized free DNA testing to undocumented Thais wanting to obtain Thai citizenship. Applicants who received the DNA test were required to be an immediate relative by blood to a person who holds a Thai ID card. DNA samples from almost 600 people were collected and will be tested in a laboratory in Bangkok. Families ” many that include several generations of undocumented Thai citizens ” will finally be eligible to obtain an ID card and gain access to numerous government services.

Results will not be known for a month, but participants expressed enthusiasm about the probability of receiving citizenship. This was especially the case for parents whose children now have a chance to enter or return to school and eventually receive diplomas. Mr. Prachee Salam, a Malay-speaking Muslim from the small island of Koh Sin Hai, said that he immediately plans to enroll his three children who participated in the DNA testing in school.

“I enrolled my two boys in school before, but because they did not have citizenship they never would have received their diplomas so they stopped attending class. They could not receive the government scholarships so I had to pay for all their school fees out of my own pocket,” he said. “I travel to Phuket to work in construction, but the pay is very low. But now my children will receive government scholarships and earn a diploma. I am very happy for my children’s future.”

Next month, The Asia Foundation will have another round of DNA testing in Ranong, offering even more families an opportunity to attain legal citizenship and the rights and benefits that accompany it.

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