Over the border and under the radar: can illegal migrants be active citizens?

Active citizens can become a powerful driver of development by holding to popular account those who traditionally hold decision-making power at the local and national levels. Active citizenship draws from a long history of understanding the importance of community participation and ownership of development interventions. However, in spite of its inherent strengths, active citizenship may not be a possible (or optimal) outcome in all circumstances. This article argues for the realistic expectation of active citizenship (and indeed participation) of one specific sub-population in Thailand, where of the estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million illegal migrants, the overwhelming majority are Burmese. Their precarious existence as illegal migrants compounds the development needs that face any poor community. This in turn hinders their ability to actively engage in the development process. This article reviews the lessons learned by a Thai-based NGO that has worked with illegal Burmese migrants for over 15 years. It discusses the unique strengths and weakness of these illegal communities, the appropriateness of seeking to engage them as active citizens, and the implications for NGOs working with such communities. It suggests that the unique role NGOs must play in cases where their public participation could endanger the lives of community members, is that of advocate-guardians, whereby they assume the role of active citizen on behalf of the community in question and simultaneously provide development interventions and advocate on its behalf.