This article examines the experience of stateless people in Thailand and how they overcome the problem of stigma. In 2020, there were 480,000 people in Thailand classified as stateless. They are individuals who migrated from neighboring countries and who settled mainly along the border with Myanmar. They are mostly members of hill tribes (such as the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Yao) with distinct languages and culture. They do not have Thai identification cards (IDs), which are required to access public services, including health care and higher levels of education, apply for professional jobs, and sell property.
The authors define stigma as “a negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual who may be regarded as having a mental, physical, or social deficiency.” The authors employ the framework integrating normative influence on stigma (FINIS), which has three layers: a microlayer focusing on individual characteristics; a mesolayer focusing on family and community contexts; and a macrolayer focusing on the stigma embedded in a larger national cultural context.
The analysis is based on data from qualitative and in-depth interviews with 51 stateless individuals living in five remote hill tribe villages along the border with Myanmar. Sixty-nine percent of the participants were female, 67 percent had no education, 57 percent were farmers, and the participants had a median monthly income of US$93.
- There are various ways in which stigma affects the lives of stateless people. They find it difficult to request assistance and assert themselves (e.g. in a healthcare setting) because they fear mistreatment or drawing attention to themselves. They experience unequal treatment and are treated more poorly than Thai citizens and other hill tribe people who have acquired Thai IDs. They feel that they have limited options for improving their lives.
- Avoidance, trying to get a Thai ID, and practicing speaking Thai are ways in which stateless people cope with stigma. The stateless population reported several approaches to handling stigma, mainly by avoidance, for example not traveling outside their village, not talking with people with whom they are not familiar and keeping track of events that could result in exposure. Trying to get a Thai ID and practicing speaking Thai were other strategies employed to cope with stigma.
- Participants expressed their single goal of obtaining a Thai ID to help them overcome problems of stigma.