05/07/2012, 00.00
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Thai refugees fight for citizenship for more than ten years

by Weena Kowitwanij
At least 20,000 displaced people are still forced to leave in refugee centres in an eastern coastal province, without basic entitlements like education, health care and the right of movement. An activist notes that women cannot even go to the police to file a complaint in cases of rape. Government's committee to examine citizenship applications is a cause of disagreement.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - Some 20,000 displaced people (DPs) in Rayong, some 220 km from the capital Bangkok, are still fighting to obtain the same rights and duties as every Thai citizen. For a decade now, they have been engaged in a legal battle for Thai citizenship, but nothing has changed despite a new law passed by parliament on Thai displaced persons, meant to settle the issue and recognise citizenship rights for all those who are entitled to them. Without such recognition, DPs are required to remain in refugee centres without health care coverage, education or free movement.

Displaced people supervisor Preda Kongpan for the eastern coastal province of Rayong knows the problem only too well. She talked to AsiaNews about her ten years of involvement with DPs and of her many meetings with government officials to protect DP rights.

"We would like to solve the problems by ourselves because, as unregistered people, we face difficulties every day." These problems include getting jobs with legal contracts, register births and deaths and in the worse case, "for women, going to the police to file a complaint for rape".

A self-help network was created more than ten years ago to help local DPs and protect their interests vis-à-vis local and national authorities.

Some officials, Preda lamented, "ignore us deliberately for security reasons." For the government, refugees are "second class citizens".

At present, the main issue concerns the government committee set up to decide who among the DPs has the right to Thai citizenship.

DPs have questioned the choice of committee members, demanding that representatives from the coop movement, social activists and DPs be included. The latter would speak on their behalf and defend their interests.

At the start of this month, Rasita Sui-young, a displaced woman, led a delegation of about 100 people that met Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit to discuss eventual changes to the committee. Mr Wichaidit said that he would consider their request.

"DPs have lived for ten years in an intolerable situation," Rasita explained. "They do not have access to the basic human rights that are available to other Thai citizens."

According to available data, Thailand is home to 2 million refugees. Unable to defend their rights, they are socially and economically marginalised.

More specifically to Thailand, refugees fall into two categories. The first one involves people from Burma whose ancestors came from Thailand or who have families in the country. The Thai government set a deadline of 9 March 1976  for anyone who wanted to opt for Thai citizenship. The second category applies to residents of a Thai province that was ceded to Cambodia during French rule. The deadline for them to apply for Thai citizenship was 15 November 1977.

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