Podcast Season 2 Episode 5: Statelessness
Hello and welcome to MOAS…
“people sometimes scratch their heads and say, ‘but everybody was born somewhere and everybody has parents, how can everybody not have a nationality?’.”
Let’s imagine for a moment that the country you were born in doesn’t legally see you as one of its citizens, and nor does any country for that matter. You can’t go to school, you can’t work and you have no say on changing this.
More than ten million people around the world face this and their difficulties go largely unnoticed. The Rohingya, a muslim minority from north-western Myanmar, make up a proportion of this number, living both in and outside their homeland.
In this Podcast, we’re going to explore Statelessness and find out how it affects the Rohingya. We’ll also see what some are doing to raising its profile and find ways to end it.
The 1954 and 61 UN conventions identify stateless people as those who are not considered nationals according to a country’s laws. But, the causes of how and why vary and the consequences carry across the generations. Melanie Khanna is Chief of the Statelessness section at UNHCR and she explains more…
‘perhaps the shortest explanation would be to say that statelessness is caused by nationality laws that don’t conform to international standards that are meant to prevent statelessness.
International law has a number of standards reflected in the two statelessness conventions in particular. There are also provisions in human rights instruments that are meant to prevent and reduce statelessness such as the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women.
But, unfortunately a number of nationality laws around the world do continue to contain discrimination of one kind or another that can lead to statelessness. For example, 25 states still make it difficult or impossible for mothers to confer nationality to their children, nationality only passes through the paternal line in most of those 25 states. This leads to statelessness where the father isn’t known or is unwilling or unable to pass on his nationality.
Some other states like Myanmar have racial or ethnic discrimination in their nationality laws which make it difficult or impossible to acquire nationality if you’re part of a certain minority group. It’s probably no accident that most of the world’s stateless are members of minority groups. It’s basically one way in which a state says that only certain kinds of people or groups of people are full members here, even if you were born here and your parents were born here and your grandparents were born here.’
Rohingya people trace their roots in Myanmar back to the eighth century. But, in the eyes of the Myanmar government they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 1982 their fate was sealed by the new Citizenship Law.
In the last three decades since, they’ve been registered as foreigners facing restrictions, bloodshed and displacement.
Amal de Chickera is co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. He says the Citizenship Law discriminated the Rohingya along ethnic lines. Of over 130 ethnic groups living in Myanmar, they are the most well known and the most disadvantaged…
‘There are 135 ethnic groups who are automatically recognised as citizens. Then there is a second and third tier of citizenship which are much lesser forms of citizenship which are open to groups who do not have or do not enjoy automatic recognition as citizens but who can prove certain strong links to the state and establish that they and their predecessors, dating back hundreds of years, actually lived in the country.
Now, technically Rohingya or many Rohingya would be able to obtain Burmese nationality through these or a lesser form of citizenship through these secondary means but in the manner in which the law is implemented. The fact that the Rohingya have historically been deprived of documentation or had their documentation that has been taken away from them.
It means that in reality there are just a handful of Rohingya who can establish their citizenship through this secondary means.’
The recent crisis brought over 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, swelling the Rohingya community to over one million. Yet Bangladesh is not formally recognizing these new arrivals as ‘refugees’, instead calling them ‘Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals’.
For De Chickera and for other rights groups, this raises serious worries about protection.
‘So we have a situation now where there are over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, this includes the over 700,000 arrivals since August last year and many hundreds of thousands in an unquantified number who’d been in the country before then.
To begin my answer, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a massive humanitarian crisis and the burden is largely on Bangladesh. Having said that, our position is that Bangladesh needs to up its game, it needs to recognize these people as refugees as a starting point. So, due to historical reasons there are some 30,000 refugees who are actually recognized as refugees in Bangladesh. The rest are not recognized as refugees. They are seen as illegal immigrants. This has a whole host of consequences in terms of the safety and security of these people.
I’m sure that listeners will be aware that Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed on a scheme to repatriate the Rohingya back to Myanmar. Now this scheme hasn’t be implemented due to the fact that Myanmar is still persecuting Rohingya in Myanmar and there are still people leaving the country That being said, the very fact that Bangladesh considered it appropriate to sign this deal at this stage goes to the heart of the matter that the protection of Rohingya is not the highest priority for Bangladesh or indeed for the world community.’
Why just 30,000?
‘This is not the first time Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh on mass. In 1978 we had over 200,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, fleeing what was known as Operation Nagamin in Myanmar which is very similar to what is happening where the Army as well as Rakhine civilians started attacking Rohingya.
Towards refugees they initially accepted into Bangladesh but subsequently, there was a repatriation that happened, again, similar to what’s being discussed now. Then, in the 1990s, 1990 – 91, again we had another mass influx of refugees over 200,000, again followed by a repatriation agreement with the majority of Rohingya again being sent back. Now, when these two hundred-odd thousand refugees arrive in the early 1990s they were all recognized as refugees and they were all offered protection. But then under the repatriation agreement, almost all of them were sent back, some twenty thousand or so remained and they retained their refugee status.
So the thirty thousand odd refugees or Rohingya who were recognized as refugees that we speak of today, are, those refugees from the early 90s who were never repatriated and of course their children and descendents.
So, it’s actually the fact that you have this very small group who are recognized as refugees amongst a much larger group which has exactly the same protection concerns as very similar or in some cases much worse experiences in terms of persecution. That much larger group is not recognized as refugees actually points to the farcical nature of this situation where we see the obligation that states have to protect refugees being utilized or being implemented not in a comprehensive manner, but in a way what is happening is a kind of cherry picking.’
So far, we’ve talked about the struggles Rohingya face being recognized as citizens or refugees. But, what if there’s another way for them to have an identity, one free of governments or traditional methods. One seen as safe, technological and tackling financial exclusion, a serious problem for a stateless people globally.
‘All of us know that now the majority of Rohingya are now outside Burma which are in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and so as the diaspora.’
That’s Muhammed Noor, Co-founder and Managing Director of the Rohingya Project. It’s a grassroots effort to create a digital identity for Rohingya. Three and a half million make up the diaspora, a mix of generations and skills, some are vegetable sellers others web developers. They lack access to mainstream economies and Noor believes that Block Chain holds the key.
‘We are targeting financial exclusion because including Rohingya into the financial institutions would allow them to have some sort of bank account and some financial services like remittances and savings and so on. It’s because the Rohingya are now facing exclusion in education and healthcare. They have been basically excluded in all the services which any normal citizen can take for granted. Financial is the heart of it because once you are able to enable people financially, once they become financially independent in any way, they can earn their living in a dignified way and then the other doors automatically open.
But, most importantly it’s about sustainability because in the short-term period people are helping Rohingya with hand-outs. In the long run, this is not going to be a very sustainable way of living because a father cannot be feeding his children by begging on the street or waiting for handouts and a bag of rice. So, what we are trying to do is a long-term sustainable and to bring them into the mainstream and get them economically strong which no-one at this moment is addressing.
We have quite a number of Rohingya who can do a number of jobs in different markets but it’s not possible right now because they do not have any identity and they do not have any financial access. So once these things can be enabled, we can start building an online economy and they can do their own selling and buying and their own projects, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer loans, microfinancing and so on.’
Why use a blockchain and what are the benefits of it for the people you’re targeting?
‘Blockchain itself is a very complex technology but to make it simple, it is the most institutionalised technology that actually brings institution without institution and brings trust without any trustees. Our citizenship had been revoked in 1982 because we are a kind of victim of centralised government. A centralised government kept all of our records and databases and one day they decided to kill us so they have the Kill-Switch. So the Kill-Switch actually killed us and now we are all over the road and we’ve become stateless and homeless and so on. I believe if block chain had been invented in the 1970s or 80s, today we would not be stateless and today we would not be homeless.
The [Blockchain] database is decentralised and not controlled by any. It is immutable and not reversible. It means that once data is in there, it cannot be deleted, it cannot be tampered, it cannot be erased which makes it so perfect for our purpose now. We are using Blockchain because there are many other technologies, especially centralised technologies.
Number one; we are not located in one place and we do not want to use centralised because we will be again vulnerable to tampering, vulnerable to hacking, vulnerable again to deleting. We have a decentralised community; some of them are in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and we also have a lot of people have asylum in the United States, in the UK and so on.
So for us, this becomes a very perfect time with the perfect technology. We’ll use this technology and then leverage it and then get an identity. Everyone will have their own with their own control. Everyone will have their own private key so if anyone that wants to access their identity, they need to get their individual permission because the identity will belong to that particular person and no-one else can tamper with it.
All the features that come with this technology are so great and so important and its fit exactly the purpose we need as Rohingya.’
While Noor and his colleagues see a digital future for stateless Rohingya, there’s also efforts being made to end it. IBelong is a UNHCR campaign raising awareness of the global issue and goal-setting governments to solve it. So far, countries surrounding Myanmar are making progress.
‘So UNHCR launched a campaign to end statelessness by 2024 known as the Ibelong campaign. We did that at the end of 2014 so it’s a 10- year plan or ambition. We did it to call attention to the issue and galvanise political will and action.
Statelessness has terrible human consequences for the individuals and communities it affects but it remains a relatively hidden problem, it’s not as prominent as some other issues your listeners might have heard of; human trafficking or landmines, these were relatively obscure issues once upon a time too and international campaigns helped to mobilise action to something about those problems.
Some of Myanmar’s neighbours have taken very positive steps in response to the campaign. Thailand for instance, has announced a policy of zero statelessness by 2024 and Malaysia has launched a blue print for ending statelessness among a certain Indian minority group.
Before the crisis last summer, we were in a longstanding dialogue with the government about how they might bring their law in line with international standards and how we as UNHCR might assist in that process. At the moment, I can just affirm that the solution to the crisis lies in Myanmar and must include resolution of the root causes of the plight of the Rohingya refugees including citizenship.’
You want to mobilize governments and civil society to help end statelessness. Given how the Rohingya are treated and the legal right of the Myanmar government, do you see the Rohingya becoming citizens?
‘Well you mentioned our interest in mobilizing governments and civil society groups and I guess one of the only positive things to come out of the current humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh is that it’s raised awareness about its link to conflict and forced displacement.
It’s really obvious that more needs to be done and this will require a long-term investment by the United Nations and others. UNHCR as I’ve mentioned, has offered support in the past to the government of Myanmar and we’ve offered it most recently with respect to implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations including the recommendation that Myanmar bring its citizenship law in line with international standards.
We’ve also offered to contribute to confidence-building measures and really any efforts that would lay the ground for solutions. Establishing the conditions that would allow Rohingya refugees to return in safety and dignity requires addressing their statelessness.
So yes, I do think we’ll get there eventually but I think it’s a long-term process.’
It’s uncertain whether the Rohingya will actually become citizens of Myanmar but there’s optimism that recent efforts will create a gradual change.
What’s looming now is repatriation.
It’s happened before but it’s never been so politically intense, both in the political offices and the refugee camps. Eyes are on a steady, voluntary return of Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar. But the refugees say they’ll go back only when they are recognized as citizens and their safety and rights are guaranteed.
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(Correction: The blog originally stated that Rohingya were the only ones not recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar. In fact, Rohingya are just one of the ethnic minorities facing exclusion.)