The tears that fall from Sombat’s eyes are striking. As a towering 17-year-old lad, he’s not prone to crying. He looks down and smiles as he grasps a single piece of plastic tightly. This identity card confirms his new status as a Thai citizen. Before, he had limited access to employment opportunities, government protection and healthcare. Now he’s excited about what the future holds.
Thailand is home to an estimated 645,400 refugees, asylum seekers and those who the United Nations Refugee Agency defines as stateless. Many of the refugees fled armed conflict in Myanmar (Burma) and have sought refuge in Thailand for decades. Others have recently travelled to the country, living in temporary shelters with no legal way of making a living. Thousands of stateless people have never been registered as Thai and have now lost their connection with their countries of origin. New regulations mean they can confirm their Thai identity, however all too often poverty stands in the way.
A special team at Compassion Thailand’s office is working tirelessly with government agencies to help eligible children receive their citizenship. To date, almost 100 children have received full citizenship thanks to dedicated staff members standing in the gap and liaising with the authorities. Children are not only being given security for the future, they're gaining protection in the present as citizenship safeguards against child trafficking.
“Sombat comes from a very difficult background,” explains his Compassion project director Worawut. “His mum had to raise him and his siblings alone. They’re in poverty.” Sombat has grown up without his father who is in prison after getting caught up in the drugs trade. Sombat’s mother Aya, a quiet but determined lady, has had to fight hard to care for her four children.
To feed her family, Aya grows rice and forages for food in the jungle.
Sombat’s lack of citizenship made life even harder for the family. “Before he had his citizenship, I was so worried,” Aya explains. “It was very heavy on my heart that Sombat would not be able to do things that the other children could do. He did not have the opportunities they did. You couldn’t travel or just go and find work like everyone else.”
"Not having an identity is a very discouraging thing" confirms Sombat. "Without it you have to pay a lot to go to the hospital and you have to work very hard and you don’t have any protection from the police."
Aya reflects on an agonising occasion when her son fell ill and “there was no one to help me, no one to translate. I took Sombat to the hospital and the doctors told me there was nothing wrong with him. They did not want to treat him because he did not have citizenship and they did not think I would be able to pay for the treatment.”
In partnership with the local church, Compassion Thailand has come alongside the family to secure a birth certificate and complete the required documents for Sombat. Aya has never been taught to read or write. She doesn’t speak Thai. Without help, legal citizenship would have been out of reach for Sombat.
Sombat receives discipleship at his Compassion project.
“The day we went [to collect my documents] I was very happy,” Sombat reflects. “We drove a long way to get there and I stood in line a long time.” Sombat smiles as he pulls out his new identity card and shows it off. “This is my identity card. It proves that I am Thai.” His eyes filling with tears, he says, “To everyone who helped me, thank you. Now I have education and a future."