Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Right To Country: A Sea Gypsy Case Study

No person or people shall have their nationality taken away from them. This means everyone has the right to belong to a nation. And they also have the right to change their nationality, if they want to.

For the next several posts, I'll be featuring case studies that illustrate an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that children and adults find interesting and illuminating.

The goal is to identify examples that I can use with my 4th grade class. 

The 26th of this December marked the 10 year anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami that ended 230,000 lives. I was living on Ko Phayam at the time, a small Thailand island about 300 km north of Phuket, and when the wave hit, I should have been swimming, because I swam every morning. Except not on the 26th, because I took a boat to the mainland to pick up my brother at Ranong’s airport. The boat reached Ranong, and the wave reached the island about a half hour later. 

The months that followed was an interesting time for relief work, as the world pulled together to help and support affected regions in as many ways as there were ruses.  Michael Douglas, for example, decided the best way that Hollywood could help was to give a million baht directly to the now deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. 

Foreigners eager to assist paid shady, fly-by-night NGOs for the privilege to pick up garbage on the beaches as the locals sat on their porches and watched. 

One of the more interesting predicaments I saw was on the small island of Kho Lao. The island was comprised of a steep hill, surrounded by a narrow shore.  
Kho Lao. The school is on the left.

This was kind of a problem for the island inhabitants, because it meant that anything they built jutted out into the sea on stilts and wooden planks. 

The island held two villages positioned on opposite ends and split by the mountain that made crossing the island on foot essentially impossible. One of these villages, the Thai side, has a school. It could potentially teach around 200 students. 

The Thai side of the island

The other village, I’ll call it Morgan village, did not. If children want to go to school from Morgan village, a small boat picks them up everyday. At the end of the school day, they are taken back. 

Morgan village was not made up of Thais. They were a settlement of sea gypsies, until recently nomadic on the water. Sea gypsies had no nationality, even though generations have lived on and around the shores of Thailand, and many had permanent residence on the banks of Thailand. The Thai government allowed sea gypsy children to attend Thai schools, but they weren’t citizens. Morgan village wanted citizenship- a fact confirmed by a quick glance around the village- every house and boat has a Thai flag hoisted above it. 
The Sea Gypsy side of the island

The village looked like a forgotten beachside carnival. 

But the Thai government hadn’t granted that privilege yet. As a result, the sea gypsies were foreigners in their homeland, among some of the poorest people in Thailand, save for the illegal Burmese immigrants. Without country or education, they had slipped into a level of poverty and hygiene that is at once horrific and heart-tugging.

In theory the children in Morgan village could go to the Thai village school. But there were several obstacles. 

Transportation was one. Although it is only a five minute boat ride, there was only one small long-tail available to transport the children to and from school everyday. 

Another obstacle was food. But not in the way you may think. A relief organization has decided to supply the sea gypsy children with a lunch program directly in their village. This took away the one motivation poor, uneducated families have for sending their children to school- the promise of lunch. With lunches being given directly to the homes, no one saw the need for school. The few students that were going to the Thai side for school just stopped going.  

Free lunch from an NGO took away the incentive to go to school

So this was an interesting problem. Actually a problem within a problem. Problems that as a foreigner and a guest of the island I could not fully comprehend. 

But stripping the problems within problems away, what's interesting about this to a 4th grader studying "The Right To Country," is that there are people that are born without a country. Until recently they couldn't go to school. And even then because they don't get any type of government support, there's a cycle of poverty that is very difficult to break.

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