Stateless soccer team members receive Thai citizenship

When Thai and international rescue workers converged on a flooded cave in Chiang Rai last month to save 13 young members of a soccer team trapped miles underground no one cared if the boys were Thai citizens or not. Now, they all are.

Three members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach who had been stateless were among 30 people granted Thai citizenship this week at a ceremony in a district office in the northernmost province of Chiang Rai. The four had either migrated to Thailand from neighboring countries or lacked the documentation needed to establish nationality. Now, Adul Sam-orn, Mongkol Boonpien, Pornchai Khamluang and their 25-year-old coach Ekkapol Chanthawong proudly carry the identification cards all Thai citizens possess.

Family members were there to support and celebrate the boys’ new status, as was the abbot of the Buddhist temple where the young men had just completed service as novice monks to honor a Thai Navy SEAL who perished in the daring and dangerous mission to rescue them. Despite being stateless, the boys had been living in Thailand, receiving an education and were treated no differently than others by the people of the community in which they live.

When word broke during the rescue mission that three ofthe boys and their coach were stateless, a steady drumbeat of pleas from the public to grant them citizenship grew.

Whether or not Thai officials expedited the process in response to public appeals, Thailand has developed and earned a good reputation in addressing the issue of statelessness. “Today, the refugee and statelessness context in Thailand is much improved,’’ UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency says on it website.

In late 2016, Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand, said measures taken in recent years “show the Royal Thai Government’s strong political will to reduce statelessness among children.”

Thailand has joined the U.N.’s Global Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024(#I Belong Campaign). The campaign works to raise awareness on the plight of stateless people and offers a platform to support governments in reforming nationality legislation and adjusting policies aiming at reducing statelessness.

Many others are still seeking Thai citizenship. More needs to be done. Thailand is committed, however, to solving the problem of statelessness.