BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the northern Thai village where Srinuan Saokhamnuan was born, stateless children like her faced two career choices - work in factories or sell sex at karaoke bars.
Any person without identity documents who left the village risked arrest or extortion, and when traffickers came, girls would just disappear.
"My parents have met men who come to the village saying they can find jobs that pay a lot of money for young women," the gritty and articulate Srinuan, the child of illegal immigrants, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview at a cafe in Bangkok.
"I have friends who became prostitutes because they didn’t have a choice."
Stateless people have no nationality and are not accepted as citizens by any country. With no ID, they are deprived of basic rights and vulnerable to exploitation and human traffickers.
Srinuan, who goes by the nickname Aor, was lucky. She managed to escape the confines of her village in Chiang Rai province's Mae Sai district, 850 km (530 miles) north of Bangkok.
She is believed to be the first stateless person granted permission to leave Thailand to study in the United States, and was finally granted Thai citizenship in 2012.
Next week, Srinuan, now 25, will speak in The Hague at the world's first forum focusing on the more than 10 million stateless people worldwide.
TREATED LIKE CRIMINALS
Thailand is home to more than 500,000 stateless people in its population of nearly 70 million. Only Myanmar and Nepal have a higher figure, according to data produced by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
Some are from remote hill tribes with ancestral ties to the territory but an ethnicity distinct from the Thai majority.
Others, like Srinuan, are children of illegal migrants who fled to Thailand. Several million people from Myanmar live in Thailand, having fled from persecution and poverty.
She said stateless people have no rights to the basics most people take for granted such as healthcare, education and employment. They cannot travel, open bank accounts, buy a house or car, or even get married.
"You need to find someone with citizenship (to help), but if that person swindles us, we cannot go to the police station. We have nothing to protect us," Srinuan said.
While Thailand reformed its nationality law in 2008 to address the problem and has a national strategy to help people acquire citizenship, many stateless remain unaware of their rights and face difficulties wading through the bureaucracy required to get citizenship.
Srinuan said she was fortunate to receive help.
She graduated from an education programme run by the non-profit organisation Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities that works in Thailand to tackle child exploitation and prostitution.
She then won a scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin with assistance from The Thailand Project, a non-profit founded by Americans Joseph Quinnell and Susan Perri to combat statelessness and trafficking in Southeast Asia.
This was made possible when Thai authorities issued her an "alien travel document" that allowed her to study overseas, in what was believed to be the first such permission granted.
Still, Srinuan had to return to Thailand each year to renew her paperwork and often faced arrest and harassment.
When she returned from the United States for her summer break in 2010, the bus she was on stopped at a checkpoint. She showed the police her documents and was pulled aside.
"He said: 'You're lying. You're stateless so how can you travel to another country? Give me 5,000 baht ($160) or go to jail.' I had travelled halfway around the world but got stuck at a checkpoint 45 minutes from my village," she said.
Srinuan asked to see his boss, who believed her but then made a pass at her. She politely declined.
"I was so lucky he let me go," she said.
Two years ago, with help from The Thailand Project, she made a renewed effort to get citizenship and this time met a new district chief who promised to help after learning that she was born in Thailand, studied in the United States, but stateless.
"I didn't believe him until I got the ID card a few weeks later. He also gave citizenship status to about 400 or 500 more people who had the right documents," she said.
In May this year Srinuan received her University of Wisconsin degree in communications and public relations. Now, she wants to help other stateless people get citizenship.
"For my whole life, many people have given me so much. I don't have any money to give back so I just want to help other people," she said.
For more stories on statelessness go to stateless.trust.org.
(Editing by Alisa Tang and Belinda Goldsmith.)
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