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Denied citizenship

June 10, 2013

FOR most of human history, formal states and associated rights of citizenship did not exist. Even where states existed, people lived as subjects of monarchical whims rather than citizens having well-defined rights.

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia in Europe unleashed the processes of modern states’ formation that eventually transformed subjects into citizens.

These processes produced such self-evident, enormous benefits within Europe that geographies globally eventually yielded to the logic of state formation and citizenship rights. Thus, almost all geographies and people today reside within modern states.

Most economic, political and cultural human rights, eg access to education, protection and economic opportunities, emerge from having state citizenship. However, despite the near universalisation of citizenship, tens of millions still unfortunately lack this fundamental right even today. They live in an international legal limbo since only around 40 countries have ratified the International Convention on Stateless People that attempts to enfranchise stateless people.

Stateless people occupy two broad categories. The first, and the larger, category includes residents of disputed territories where the UN does not recognise the permanent jurisdiction of any state pending the resolution of bilateral disagreements, eg Taiwan, Kashmir and Palestine.

Given the large sizes of such populations, transitory arrangements developed by the UN or states still allow such people most rights enjoyed by full-fledged citizens. So, Taiwan’s passport is recognised by most countries and Taiwanese can even travel to China.

Within this first category, Palestinians — especially Gazans — enjoy the least rights. After dealing for several hours with Israeli authorities’ suspicions about my Pakistani origins, when I finally reached Gaza soon after the 2008 Israeli invasion, I felt like I had entered an earthquake zone. Multi-storey buildings reduced to rubble by indiscriminate Israeli bombing littered the skyline.

I did not find the mass-scale abject poverty that some sources had reported, and which I have seen in Somalia, Darfur and Congo. Shops sold a variety of consumer goods smuggled through hundreds of Sinai tunnels and restaurants were doing good business. However, the lack of basic human rights, such as access to travel, higher education and medical treatment opportunities, was immediately evident.

Illiterate, rural and isolated people displaced by war often find some measure of temporary solace even in overcrowded and poorly serviced camps. In Gaza, one has a highly educated, urban and globally connected population seething with enormous anger at being deprived of services that people similar to them enjoy as a birthright globally. When I eventually re-entered Israel, I felt like I had escaped from a large, open prison into the prison guard’s compound.

The second category includes people who live in internationally recognised states but cannot obtain the citizenship of that or any other country due to various political reasons. Myanmar’s Rohingyas have recently attracted global attention, with neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar willing to grant them citizenship.

But the Rohingyas are only unique in the degree to which they have suffered recent large-scale violence. Millions of such stateless people live like criminals in dozens of other countries, often suffering silent violence. Neither home nor host countries are willing to accept responsibility for them.

Unfortunately, one such country shirking responsibility is Pakistan, which has disowned the hundreds of thousands of Biharis stranded in Bangladesh since 1971 even though they supported Pakistan’s campaign and consequently suffered atrocities at the hands of armed Bengali groups.

Forty years later, they still languish in over 60 camps throughout Bangladesh with eight to 10 people living in 8x8-foot rooms in squalid, unhygienic conditions. While Bangladeshi courts have awarded citizenship to children born there, the adults remain in legal limbo. Small minorities have slipped into Pakistan through India or obtained Bangladeshi papers through various guises. The vast majority wait to go to Pakistan.

Against the backdrop of surveys reporting that two-thirds of Pakistanis wish to leave Pakistan, it is heartening to see people craving to go in the reverse direction even with things so bad in Pakistan. During a recent trip to Bihari camps in Dhaka, I asked people whether they knew how bad the security situation was in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi. They replied in unison that they kept in touch on a daily basis through email, telephone and newspapers.

However, they felt that in Karachi they may die once in the violence, whereas in Dhaka without legal status they die every day due to the shame. As a person blessed with the luxury of possessing two citizenships, it was ironic for me to see thousands of people struggling to gain even one.

Where there is a clash between right and wrong, passing judgment is easy. However, in real life one is often faced with the dilemma of choosing sides in a clash between two rights. The right of Biharis to come to Pakistan unfortunately clashes with the right of Sindhis to retain their numerical majority in their ancestral land. Which right should take precedence?

For me, at least, the immediacy of Bihari suffering takes precedence over a demographic eventuality down the decades, which may not even ever occur given the small numbers of Biharis involved and the usually higher fertility rates of rural populations.

Egypt’s Jews remained lost in the wilderness for 40 years before Moses brought them home. Pakistan’s Biharis are still searching for their Moses 40 years later. With the return of the PML-N, which had earlier repatriated some Biharis, and the increasing inclination of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to take suo motu action on matters involving fundamental rights, the Biharis may find their Moses yet. But until then, they remain a blot on the Pakistani conscience.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.