Stateless millions

November 26, 2019

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The writer is a lecturer in international development and global migration.
The writer is a lecturer in international development and global migration.

THE simplest definition of statelessness, academic or layperson, is not being a legal citizen of any country. The world’s most talked about stateless population were the semi-nomadic Roma community of Eastern Europe.

Over time, the focus has shifted to the Rohingya of Myanmar. Much has been written and said about these desperate millions who have been denied legal claim to citizenship in the land on which they were born and raised. Despite this, the world is making absolutely no effort to ensure that they have claim to legal citizenship and sovereignty, either in Myanmar or anywhere else.

This is worrying not just because of the intensity of the human rights abuses in this case, but because it is setting a dangerous precedent regarding countries making decisions about who belongs and who doesn’t.

India’s recent decision to strip almost two million people in the north-eastern state of Assam of their citizenship, and forcing them to ‘prove’ their identity is the most recent case. Without any current legal identity as a result of this, they now have nowhere to go, languishing in refugee camps.

Geopolitics never sees human suffering.

Another case is Pakistan’s decision in 2016 to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Afghans. Dubbed by Human Rights Watch as the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times”, most of these Afghans are not technically stateless, since they have been granted refugee status. However, children of refugees born in Pakistan are still not immediately entitled to Pakistani citizenship (though legally, they are allowed to apply for it), and this remains a politically contested issue. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise to grant citizenship to Afghans born to refugees in Pakistan led to such an outcry that he has all but abandoned it. However, there is no guarantee that they will be given Afghan citizenship either. This would effectively render them stateless.

This is yet another example of how many countries prevent communities from belonging to the place they have always called home. Even if they were born there.

As much as the geopolitics of South and Southeast Asia plays into all these cases, particularly given the convoluted ties among regional countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the idea of rendering anyone ‘stateless’ is one that defies all norms and conventions in this day and age.

The 1954 United Nations conventions that relates to the status of stateless persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are relevant to addressing statelessness. Maintaining the right to a nationality, international rights agreements complement them.

None of the countries mentioned are signatory to either of these conventions, making them immune to any international accountability on the matter. Even the much-touted UN SDGs, something every country is currently accountable for, does not explicitly address statelessness.

This growing trend to strip nationals of their citizenship and render them stateless is an alarming one. It is not only putting at risk communities that number in the millions, but also creating an excuse to allow other minority communities to be similarly treated.

Statelessness is also the result of the global pattern to stymie terrorism, as seen in the recent cases involving most notably, brides of the militant Islamic State group.

A rise in statelessness means a rise in displaced communities searching for refuge. Given the already overburdened global refugee system, stateless populations will have to vie for already scarce resources in order to survive. For South Asia, this is even more of a challenge, given how the political interconnectedness of countries responsible for contributing to statelessness exacerbates the situation.

Bangladesh has issues with housing the Rohingya and has a stressful relationship with Myanmar. Those rendered stateless in India are accused of being illegal Bangladeshis. Bangladesh does not want to upset its own fragile relationship with India, let alone having to house another two million refugees. Pakistan is already overburdened with unstable relations with India and a rough history with Bangladesh, not to mention fragile relations with Afghanistan.

But geopolitics doesn’t ever see human suffering. The plight of South Asia’s stateless people is worse than what it would be during war or a famine. It is one that completely disregards humanity. Denying someone their identity, be it their birthright, or their settler status, is possibly one of the worst human rights abuses.

Ignoring these atrocities will ultimately backfire. The fact that South Asia is now perhaps a region with one of the fastest-growing population of stateless communities is one that politicians and policymakers need to come to terms with immediately. And so does the rest of the world.

The writer is a lecturer in international development and global migration.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2019