One Woman in Thailand Is Fighting for Undocumented Children’s Rights

The journey toward paperwork for just one child usually means a wild goose chase that can take years, littered with catch-22s, dead ends, and false leads.
Sopha and some of the children from Baan Unrak. (Photo: Matt Alesevich)
Dec 4, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Matt Alesevich is a New York City based travel journalist who covers human interest stories, meditation and marginalized members of society.

Just 10 miles from the Thailand-Myanmar border in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, near two refugee camps and among a majority migrant population, there’s a place that 149 children call home. Some outsiders refer to it as an orphanage; others, a children’s home. But ask the 47-person-strong staff, volunteers, or children who live there, and neither term does it justice. To them it’s Baan Unrak—the House of Joy.

Now in its 25th year of operation, Baan Unrak has provided shelter, food, medical care, and education for local children in need since 1990, when its founder, an Italian expat, was asked to help raise an abandoned woman’s child.

While the home provides its children with more than basic care and life essentials, there’s one necessity for a child’s growth and development that proves more time-consuming to provide than all the others—documentation.

Of Baan Unrak’s 149 children, just 42 hold Thai citizenship. Twenty-seven others will join them as citizens in the next two to three years, and another 40 are waiting in the wings with a 10-year card—a limbo-at-best designation that grants a decade-long stay in Thailand with minimal rights. The remaining 40—Myanmar refugees from camps, children with parents in Myanmar, and Thais no longer in touch with family—have no documentation at all.

And while labyrinth-like paper trails are unique for every child, what many have in common is that they’re blazed by an adventurous, detective-minded mother figure with a past not unlike their own. Her name is Sopha.

When Sopha was a child in Thailand’s Tak province, she didn’t spend much time with her father, a Karen ethnic army soldier fighting the Burmese military junta on the Thai-Burma border.

“My father got taken away,” says Sopha, now 28. “I lived with my aunt, and when I was three or four she put me in a dormitory school in the jungle.”

Sopha. (Photo: Matt Alesevich)

Her formal schooling ended at grade six, so when she was 12, with no family to return to and no documentation, her teacher brought her to Baan Unrak, which then housed 27 children. When she was just 15, she took documentation matters into her own hands and fought for three years to be recognized as a citizen in the country of her birth.

“I needed to find the leader of my village,” Sopha says. “I needed so many documents.”

After becoming a Thai citizen at 18, Sopha left Baan Unrak to attend university and afterward held positions at the World Vision Foundation of Thailand and the International Rescue Committee. Seeing a need for someone with her life and work experience back at Baan Unrak, a friend invited her to return as an employee in 2009, and she answered the call of her childhood home.

Since then, Sopha has fought to get full national recognition for every child at Baan Unrak, the documentation she too was once denied.

“In the past, I was like them. I had no nationality, and it was very painful,” she says. “[The children] want to be doctors or soldiers or teachers or police, but they can’t, and it makes them feel so sad.”

The journey toward paperwork for just one child, which requires a birth certificate, usually means a wild goose chase that can take years, littered with catch-22s, dead ends, and false leads.

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Many children don’t have birth certificates because their jungle villages never issued one or they’ve lost touch with their Thai or tribal Myanmar birth parents. To obtain a substitute, Sopha must track down long-lost family members or powerful, long-tenured authority figures from a child’s birthplace, such as former teachers, village leaders, or police officers who can vouch for a child’s past and will agree to travel to a government office to make an official statement.

While the process seems straightforward, many villages are remote and transient, and locating people often proves fruitless.

“The most difficult thing is no witnesses and no one to validate any claims,” says Sopha. “I can spend so much time looking for a midwife in the jungle only to find out she is dead. It’s so difficult.”

Even if people are found, there’s no guarantee they’ll cooperate.

“Some people say, ‘Why are you fighting for children from Myanmar?’ ” Sopha says. “It took two years to get paperwork for one child. His father was always drunk, so he couldn’t get to the office. We have to beg.”

On top of the administrative hardships Sopha faces, venturing out to remote jungle villages alone presents both logistical and safety concerns. Weeks-long excursions are routine, and she must constantly rely on public transportation and the kindness of strangers.

“When I go to a village, I sleep in the house of the villagers,” she says. “I went to one village and it was dark and rainy, and I couldn’t find anyone.”

Needing to make split-second decisions at any turn, Sopha must stay on her toes.

Girls play at Baan Unrak. (Photo: Matt Alesevich)

“I have to be careful. You don’t know [drivers] or what they want to do to you,” she says. “Every time I take a ride I must look at their face and say, ‘Can I trust you?’ ”

When enough willing-to-cooperate authorities have been summoned, a birth certificate may be issued. Only then can Sopha transition her efforts to getting a 10-year card or citizenship for a child, another arduous, yet worthwhile, journey filled unpredictability.

“I am very happy [when a child gets citizenship],” says Sopha. “But I don’t want them to know that they have a nationality because of me or someone else.”

Despite her humbleness, however, her inspiring, pay-it-forward efforts hardly go unnoticed.

“I want to be like Sopha,” says 16-year-old So So, a Baan Unrak teen who now has Thai citizenship. “She do her best in everything.”

And even when her best isn’t enough, the journeys continue with the same tenacity she took to her own fight

“With some kids, we have to stop, but I don’t want to stop,” Sopha says. “When I have free time, I will try again.”