Thailand on Wednesday granted citizenship to three young soccer players and their coach, who were rescued last month along with other team mates after spending three weeks in a flooded cave.
The four had been stateless and their lack of citizenship blocked access to some basic benefits and rights, such as the ability to travel outside of Chiang Rai, the northern province where they live.
The region is home to nomadic hill tribes and other ethnic minorities, with many of them stateless.
The three boys and their coach were among 13 boys who were saved in a dramatic rescue by Thai navy seals and international diving experts that ended on July 10 and received huge media attention worldwide.
They had all applied for citizenship before the cave incident and were fully qualified for the change in status, said district chief Somsak Kanakam.
UN praises decision
The UN Refugee Agency welcomed the decision, saying it would give the four a brighter future.
"By providing these boys and their coach with citizenship, Thailand has given them the chance to both dream of a brighter future and to reach their full potential," Carol Batchelor, UNHCR's special advisor on statelessness, said in a statement. "Thailand has provided them with a formal identity that will pave the way for them to achieve their aspirations."
Nopparat Kanthawong, the head coach of the Wild Boars team, said the four had received official Thai ID cards along with another teammate who had not been in the cave but also applied for citizenship.
"I'm happy," he said. "I want to say that football can elevate the lives of kids whose families may not be in the best position."
"If they have Thai citizenship, in the future, if they don't want to play football they can take exams to become public officials or find good work that is related to their field of studies," he said.
According to Thai government statistics, there are 488,105 stateless people registered in Thailand, but that number could be as high as 3.5 million, according to the International Observatory on Statelessness.
The Observatory said stateless people in Thailand are unable to vote, buy land, seek legal employment, work in certain occupations or travel freely.
law/rt (AP, Reuters)