Thai authorities granted citizenship to three young soccer players and their coach Wednesday, less than a month after they were freed from a flooded cave in a dramatic rescue that riveted the world and unearthed their immigration status.
The three boys and their 25-year-old coach were with nine other Wild Boars soccer team members who were extracted from the massive Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai, where they were trapped for more than two weeks.
Their high-risk rescue involved hundreds of volunteers and led to the death of one diver. The rescue, which was widely covered by international media, gripped the world and exposed their personal background, revealing that the boys and their coach were among 490,000 stateless people registered in the kingdom.
Somsak Kanakam, sheriff of Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai, handed out citizenship cards to the three boys and their coach in a ceremony on Wednesday.
“I affirm that all four got Thai citizenship as I approved and it is effective today,” Somsak told reporters as one of the boys, 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiam, grinned while receiving his card.
The boys’ coach, Ekkapol Chanthavong, came to the ceremony wearing an orange robe.
Ekkapol, also known as Ake, was the last person pulled out of the cave. Although he was earlier criticized for leading the children into the cave, Thais eventually rallied behind him.
Thai officials said Ekkapol decided to spend more time in a Buddhist monastery, where 11 Wild Boars were ordained last month as novice Buddhist monks. One declined to go through the religious ritual because he wasn’t Buddhist.
Local reports said the coach and the three boys were all born in Thailand, but the Buddhist-majority country’s strict Nationality Act does not automatically confer citizenship by birth.
In 1972, in a bid to stem illegal immigration from Burma and concerns over communist insurgency in border areas, Thailand amended its Nationality Act to require that both parents be legal residents and domiciled in the country for at least five years for their child to be granted Thai citizenship at birth. The kingdom also revoked citizenship from many people who had it under the earlier act.
The government’s move caused difficulties for members of hill tribes in border areas who were not registered in a census that took place in 1956. Many residents had no way to prove that their parents were Thais as opposed to having entered the country as refugees, rights activists said.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said most of the stateless people in Thailand belong to “hill tribes” living in remote areas with limited access to information about nationality procedures and who, in the past, lived without registration or identity documentation.
The Thai government has pledged to attain zero statelessness by 2024, according to the UNHCR, which estimates that 490,000 people are stateless in Thailand and unable to vote, seek legal employment or travel freely.