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Adul Sam-on: the stateless boy who survived the Thai cave – and helped with the rescue

Adul Sam-on (right) during the rescue operation. Handout: Thai Navy Seals.

The dramatic rescue of the 12 boys trapped in Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand captured the world’s attention. But one young person in particular stood out: 14-year-old Adul Sam-on, who, as the only English speaker in the group (he also speaks Chinese, Burmese and Thai), greeted the British divers who found them, and acted as interpreter throughout the rescue.

Adul is stateless. According to reports, he was born in Wa state, an unrecognised state within Myanmar which is unable to issue legal identity documentation. At age six, Adul’s parents “slipped” him into Thailand to protect him from conflict, and offer him education and opportunities which he couldn’t get in his home state.

Being stateless, Adul faces an uncertain future. Some might consider him a refugee, others might opt for the term “illegal migrant”. Throughout Thailand, and the world, there are millions of stateless young people like Adul. And yet aside from extraordinary events like this, these young people, their challenges and capabilities, often go overlooked – invisible behind their legal status.

A state of frustration

My PhD research at Trinity College Dublin explored the experiences of young people who, like Adul, are growing up with precarious legal status along the Thailand-Myanmar border. While official figures put the number of stateless people in Thailand at 400,000, the reality is estimated to be more than three million. Statelessness occurs when an individual is either denied citizenship or unable to access citizenship they have a right to.

Either way, statelessness results in a life of uncertainty:

It’s like living in the prison sometimes… I can’t go anywhere… I can’t work… It’s like living in a box. I am ignored by people around me… I want to go around freely. I want to go like other people go.

These are the words of 18-year-old Thin. Born in Thailand, she is stateless. She works as a kindergarten teacher in a “migrant learning centre” (MLC), so-called due to their unofficial status in Thailand. In cooperation with local police, she was issued with a migrant teacher card. This unofficial identity card protects her within school grounds. Once outside, she is vulnerable to arrest.

She feels like a criminal in her home country. But as she points out: “Even though the police arrest, people have to go [on]”. Everyday life – going to the market, attending the health clinic or church, visiting family or friends – must continue. I spoke to young people who had been arrested and deported as young as 14, paying up to 2,000THB (€50) for their release – a huge amount for families earning 150THB (€3.80) per day.

Thin’s frustrations were echoed by others: the lack of accreditation for education in the MLCs, the inability to access decent work or get married legally, the abuse and exploitation by employers, police and others, the lack of recourse to justice and the lack of affordable health care. Fear and restriction shape these young lives.

Living invisibly

Like Adul, the young people I spoke to are far from passive victims of circumstances, despite the precarious nature of their lives. “Getting depressed wastes time”, according to Aung, aged 20. Aung told me that his struggles – such as herding cattle as a six-year-old after his parents brought him to Thailand – have informed his perspective on life, and help to sustain him. Suffering is expected:

Everyone has to struggle … If people hold on to their struggles like I have, it can be strength and motivation.

In the face of sadness, fear and uncertainty, many of these young people choose optimism. Positivity can be a means of self-preservation. They choose to “just stay happy”. Thin takes comfort in the knowledge that her situation is not unique: “other people can live, I can live”.

Their lives have made them unique. Saw, 20, refers to himself as one of the “border boys”. According to Saw, “you need to be mixed in order to survive” in his world. Saw does not consider himself one of those “real” Thai or Burmese, but a mix of nationalities and ethnicities. Like Adul, he speaks several languages.

These extraordinary young people strive for an ordinary life. Kwi, 20, has vivid memories of fleeing violence in his home Karen State as a small child. He reads the news about the crisis in the Mediterranean. He says he understands people’s fear of refugees and migrants, but he just wants a chance:

I am not a troublemaker… Some people are proud of the country they are from… I don’t even want to belong to any country, I just need opportunity to study and to work and to make my life.

People around the world have been inspired by Adul Sam-on, his teammates and their coach, Ake. Now is the time to recognise those stateless young people who – under normal circumstances – remain invisible. There are rumours that the three stateless teammates and their coach may be given citizenship. This would transform their lives, and Thailand would be lucky to benefit from their potential.

Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the participants.

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