Notes from the Field

From Thailand: Hundreds of Tsunami Survivors Receive Legal Identification

March 26, 2008

Over 200 new identification cards were distributed by Governor Kanjana Keeman to Thai citizens at a ceremony held in Ranong province on Tuesday, March 25th. The new I.D. card holders are participants of a major initiative led by The Asia Foundation’s Tsunami Rights and Legal Aid Referral Center (T-LAC) program, which provided free DNA testing and guidance to each family through the application process. In addition, 200 children were added to their family’s household registration list, which will automatically qualify them for a state I.D. card once they reach the legal age of 15.

Across Thailand, thousands of people live without access to rights and government services because they are simply not listed on a household registration list. This list determines a person’s official citizenship status under Thai law. Unregistered at birth for a variety of reasons ” including distance from the place of birth to the provincial government office or cultural practices that emphasize home births ” these individuals are not eligible for jobs, are unable to receive diplomas, cannot apply for a driver’s license, are ineligible for university admission, have no access to health care and other welfare services, and cannot legally travel outside of their province.

The 2004 tsunami tragically illuminated the fragile condition of unregistered Thais living outside the system because they were also ineligible for government-issued relief benefits. When T-LAC became aware of this crisis, they were compelled to act. To prevent future gaps in services and inequitable distribution of government assistance, the Foundation provided free DNA testing in Ranong to anyone related to a Thai I.D. card holder. At these clinics, the Central Institute of Forensic Science administered the tests and then confirmed the results in a Bangkok laboratory. With confirmed DNA matches, the provincial government of Ranong was able to verify the applicant’s blood relation and issue an I.D. card.

Following the tsunami that struck the Andaman coast, T-LAC reached out to affected communities with the most urgent legal needs, such as adoptions of orphaned survivors, obtaining legal guardianship of minor-aged relatives, and mediating land disputes. Recognizing the many economic hurdles facing tsunami survivors ” widows who had to enter the workforce or take on additional jobs to make ends meet, or those who sustained injuries that prevented them from continuing their skilled trade ” the Foundation next focused on assisting T-LAC clients to start new businesses or learn new marketable skills in order to become financially self-sufficient again. Small grants were provided to new entrepreneurs as capital funds to begin income-generating activities or receive vocational training.

Through its wide-reaching outreach to remote areas and ongoing relationships with tsunami-affected communities, T-LAC learned of extensive legal issues facing Thais who were not physically harmed by the tsunami but were nonetheless struggling with significant challenges as a result. These findings informed T-LAC’s current priority area: to assist groups in obtaining legal identify so they may secure their rights. Through the partnership with the Ministry of Justice, the Central Institute of Forensic Science, and the Ministry of Interior, hundreds have participated in The Asia Foundation’s DNA testing program, including families with as many as four generations of undocumented relatives who are rightfully Thai citizens.

At Tuesday’s ceremony, booths were set up outside so that newly conferred I.D. card holders could open their first bank account, arrange for health care, and explore opportunities for legal employment. T-LAC is also hosting workshops for these new citizens on how to vote, how to register marriages and births, the necessity of land deeds and house registration, as well as general information on how the legal system works and how laws affect individuals in their day-to-day lives.

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