A college photography assignment in Thailand turned into a lifetime mission for Joseph Quinnell.
Instead of simply documenting the problems of child labor, prostitution and human trafficking plaguing Thailand's stateless population, the University of Wisconsin junior decided to be part of the solution.
His summer learning experience grew into a quest to help these young women - mostly Burmese refugees - get health care, education and legal recognition.
During his first trip to Mae Sai district in northern Thailand in 2005, Quinnell visited a school run by a non-profit organization. When a group of youngsters ran past, the volunteer showing him around said, ‘These children do not exist.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’" Quinnell remembers. "She described it, saying that these were children who, at this moment, were really unaware of their situation. But soon, around third or fourth grade, they would be told they were stateless.”
Stateless children in Thailand peer into the classroom of a school they are barred from attending. (Joseph Quinnell)
That was how he first learned about the plight of stateless children.
“They did not have citizenship from any country, won't be able to get a job, to travel, go to a university, to marry, to own property," Quinnell says. "Basically these children would not be able to dream of a future for themselves.”
Much of Thailand’s stateless population consists of ethnic minorities who fled the military regime in Burma. Neither immigrants nor refugees, they have no legal status.
Their children, even those born in Thailand, inherit their parents’ statelessness and hopelessness, becoming an easy target for human trafficking and child labor.
“There are 12- to 15 million stateless people worldwide," Quinnell says. "It is estimated that Thailand has the largest population of the stateless people; two to 3.5 million.”
Part of the solution
When Quinnell returned home, he decided to be part of the solution. Hoping to put a face on statelessness and raise money to fight it, he exhibited his photographs around Wisconsin.
He also helped create a program which sends state university students to Thailand.
“They would visit NGOs on the ground and work on the issues of statelessness and human trafficking," Quinnell says. "They would provide art, dance, theater and music classes to children at these NGOs.”
Help through education
Education is also at the heart of The Thailand Project, a non-profit Quinnell co-founded three years ago. His co-founder, Susan Perri, says their education program offers scholarships for two stateless students to attend the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
“We worked with Thai government officials and U.S. officials and NGOs on the ground in Thailand to get all the paperwork ready for these stateless students to come back with us to study in the U.S.”
'Bird in a cage'
Barred from attending a university in Thailand, Srinuan Saokhamnuan never even dreamed she would be accepted at an American school. The 24 year old was born to stateless parents who came to Thailand from Burma. Having no citizenship, she says, is a painful experience.
Stateless children cheer as Srinuan Saokhamnuan prepares to fly to the U.S. from Thailand for the first time. (Joseph Quinnell)
“I just felt like I am a bird, that I have to stay in a cage all the time because I could not go anywhere," Saokhamnuan says. "My parents could not get good jobs. They could not be like a doctor or teacher. They can work only in factories and they get paid really less than Thai people.”
She feels fortunate she stayed in school and was eligible for the program. Now majoring in communications and public relations, she says stateless kids don't usually make it very far in their education. Their parents usually pull them out of school to work or to be sold.
She says that's what happened to one of her friends.
“Her mom actually was a prostitute," Saokhamnuan says. "She also sent her daughter to be a prostitute before sixth grade. It was the only way to make money.”
Saving Saokhamnuan and others from that fate, says Quinnell, is the rewarding result of collaborating with other non-profits.
“Last summer she was granted Thai citizenship," Quinnell says. "Then her case actually snowballed into more than 400 stateless young men and women being granted Thai citizenship.”
Since receiving Thai citizenship, Saokhamnuan, who graduates in 2014, has been dreaming big.
“I want to go back to Thailand and work with some non-profit organizations to help people," she says, "to give them the opportunity to go to school.”
Like Quinnell, Saokhamnuan believes education is a critical tool in breaking the cycle of hopelessness stateless people are trapped in, giving them hope for a better future.