By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), up to 2017, there were about 10 million Stateless people around the world in all continents including Europe. Among the Stateless, about 30% are children. It would have increased by now with about a million Rohingyas pouring into Bangladesh from Myanmar and the final status of about 1.9 million “doubtful citizens” in India still being unsure.
In the absence of nationality, these people are deprived of rights and entitlements that the majority of the global population takes for granted. They are also exploited economically, politically and sexually because they have no rights and are considered fair game.
“Often they are excluded from cradle to grave, denied a legal identity when they are born, access to education, health care, marriage and job opportunities during their lifetime, and even the dignity of an official burial and a death certificate when they die,” notes a 2017 document of the UNHRC.
Statelessness is a man-made problem and occurs because of a bewildering array of causes, the global report says. “Entire swathes of a population may become stateless overnight due to political or legal directives or the redrawing of State boundaries,” it notes.
Sri Lanka had a decades-long Statelessness problem which eventually got solved due to domestic political considerations as well a sense of humanity which had grown among its political leaders in the 1990s and 2000s. The problem was created by selfish politicians and was ended by large-hearted politicians.
Immediately after Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, 800,000 Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) , who were mainly working in the plantations, were disenfranchised and rendered Stateless by the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1949 and amended the Parliamentary Elections Act.
The idea was not so much to throw the IOT out of work and take their jobs, but to dis-enfranchise them so that they did not encroach on the political/electoral space of the indigenous communities comprising Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.
The tragedy of the IOT was compounded by the fact that they were neither wanted in Sri Lanka nor in India. However, due to pressure from Lanka, New Delhi and Colombo concluded a series of agreements on the grant of citizenship and repatriation. In the 1960s, around 40% of the IOT were granted Lankan citizenship. Some were repatriated to India. Some who had been given Indian citizenship chose not to go to India and preferred to be Stateless in Sri Lanka.
However, by the 1990s most Indian Tamils had received Lankan citizenship, and the remainder got it 2003 due to political bargains between successive Lankan governments and the leaders of the plantation Tamils. Even those who had taken Indian citizenship under bilateral agreements but did not go India, were given Lankan citizenship upon surrendering their Indian citizenship. Today, there is no Stateless IOT in Sri Lanka.
During the years of Statelessness, the IOT could not vote and were deprived of certain entitlements which other sections of society enjoyed. Being vulnerable they were also subjected to exploitation. But gradually, they were given rights and they are acquiring an education and moving out of the plantations for urban employment and business opportunities.
Ethnic and linguistic politics deprived Bangladeshi citizenship to about 200,000 to 300,000 “Biharis” who are non-Bengali Urdu-speaking people from India or Pakistan. The Biharis had migrated to what is now Bangladesh and what was then East Pakistan, from North India and West Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 into a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan. When East Pakistan revolted against West Pakistan in 1971, the Biharis were accused of siding with Urdu-speaking Pakistan. When Bangladesh came into being in 1971, the Bihari were rendered “Stateless” and were put in camps.
However, following a 2008 High Court ruling, 300,000 Stateless Biharis were recognized as Bangladeshi citizens. The court said: “By keeping the question of citizenship unresolved on wrong assumptions over the decades, this nation has not gained anything but rather was deprived of the contribution they could have made in nation building.”
In Iraq, during Saddam Hussein’s rule, a 1980 decree had stripped Faili Kurds of citizenship. But the post-Saddam government overturned that decision. Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) amended its laws in 2013 to allow nationality to be acquired through a simplified application process that allowed many of the 700,000 Stateless persons to acquire citizenship, the UNHCR said.
More recently, an exercise conducted in the North-Eastern Indian State of Assam revealed that 1.9 million people did not qualify for Indian citizenship as they could not prove, with appropriate documentation, their residence in the State prior to March 24, 1971.
Those who are not in the list are now notionally Stateless though the Indian government says that they cannot be considered “Stateless” or as “foreigners” before they complete an appeal process which begins with the local Foreigners’ Tribunal and ends with the Supreme Court in New Delhi. The government also said that it will provide legal assistance to the needy petitioner.
However, it is to be noted that citizenship based on documentation is not practical or just in a country like India where even births and deaths are not registered because of poverty and ignorance. Most farm laborers, being poor, will not have any property to prove residence. The national ID card called “Adhaar” was introduced only recently. But the Adhaar cannot be proof of citizenship for the purpose of the National Citizenship Register (NCR) in Assam as the documents show residence prior to March 24, 1971.
Since the accusation is that the illegal immigrants had come from Bangladesh, those not on the NRC fear that they would either be detained in camps or deported to Bangladesh. Bangladesh also fears that it will be burdened with 1.9 million refugees from India even as it is putting up one million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
But New Delhi has told Dhaka that Bangladesh will not be inconvenienced by the NRC as it is an “internal issue” of India.
Be that as it may, New Delhi will have to find a solution to the creation of Statelessness by the NRC. While denying the vote to the Stateless. the government could give them an identity card or a work permit which would enable them to work or do business or acquire an education. The Sri Lankan experience in dealing with Statelessness could be drawn upon.
More than 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar were refused nationality under a 1982 citizenship law and their freedom of movement, religion and education were severely curtailed. Over the years about one million Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh and 40,000 in India. The 1982 law stemmed from a long standing view of the majority Burmese that the Rohingya Muslims are migrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya issue is not likely to be solved anytime soon because the major world powers are not putting any pressure on the Myanmar government. All nations want to exploit Myanmar’s minerals and for this they have to be in the good books of the regime in Yangon and turn eye to what it what it is doing to the Rohingyas.
In the meanwhile, there is fear in Bangladesh that the Rohingya camps in it are becoming a center for drug trafficking, sex trade and even for Islamic terrorism. The Bangladesh government is keen that the Rohingyas do not mix with the local population.
It was in the 1970s that the UNHCR was mandated to assist Stateless people under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This was consolidated in 1995. The legal cornerstones of UNHCR’s work are the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
According to UNHCR, solving Statelessness appeared to be insurmountable for decades. Many governments and the international community, as a whole, appeared uninterested. But in recent years there has been a perceptible and positive shift to resolve Statelessness, it says. Encouragingly, some countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have solved the problem through legal and political methods. But at the same time, Stateless is also being created in other parts of the world because of displacement brought about by war and politico-legal actions of governments.