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Paper airplane, or paper tiger?

Meet Mong Thongdee, a 12-year-old "security threat" in Thailand.

Beyond the passport drama, Mong’s case is also casting attention toward Thailand’s stateless youth dilemma. The country now holds at least 2 million stateless people, many of them of Burmese origin, said Amanda Bissex, chief of Unicef Thailand’s Child Protection Section.

Compared to neighboring Laos, Cambodia and especially Burma, Thailand is flush with opportunity. Low-wage factory, construction and housekeeping jobs entice hundreds to cross the kingdom’s jungly borders each day. Mong’s parents, who belong to the region’s ethnic Shan group, began as orange pickers and now hold construction jobs.

The government has long struggled to balance the benefits of cheap, foreign-born labor with a perceived threat posed by a stateless underclass. Migrants with jobs can register with the government to avoid deportation — but they’re not given access to many public services, such as health care, Bissex said.

Thai law doesn’t endow migrants’ children with citizenship, even if the kids have never set foot in their parents’ homeland.

Those who obey the law and register with the Thai government can’t leave the boundaries of their local district, akin to an American county. If caught outside that zone, they can be deported immediately, said Hartairat Thaianurak of the non-profit Migrant Assistance Program in Chiang Mai.

“The Thai government likes to claim this only for national stability,” Hartairat said. “But I think that if we have all these kids with no stability in their lives, then we’ll never find the answer to this problem. These kids speak Thai and eat Thai food. They’ve inherited Thai culture and they’ll keep carrying it on for at least a couple generations.” The government has recently loosened restrictions on stateless children, Bissex said, encouraging more migrants living illegally to come out of the shadows and register their newborns. Once registered, children can at least attend Thai school, as does Mong.

Though Thailand’s Interior Ministry has yielded to Mong’s plea for temporary travel papers, the paper airplane saga won’t help him secure citizenship, officials have said. His family’s residence status will come under review again early next year.

“If they offered, I’d definitely take it,” said Mong, who one day hopes to attend college and become a pilot.

But the paper plane whiz, preparing to represent Thailand at the Japan Origami Airplane Association challenge, has more immediate concerns. Even though it’s only autumn in Japan, Mong heard that it’s pretty compared to Chiang Mai — the only town he knows.

“I’ve need to go shopping,” he said. “I don’t have any winter clothes.”