By Rodion Ebbighausen
Millions of people in Asia are not citizens of any country, and they live without legal rights or protection. Although modern conflicts shape the problem, statelessness is rooted in Asia’s colonial past.
In India’s northeastern Assam state, almost 2 million people are struggling to have their citizenship recognized.
After years of discussion and a highly controversial process, the state government published the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in August. The register lists officially recognized citizens out of the state’s population of 31 million . Those not on the list are considered to be “illegal migrants.”
Any applicant unable to prove that they lived in the state before the March 24, 1971 deadline was considered to have “doubtful” status.
The deadline refers to the day before the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War, when what was then East Pakistan declared independence from West Pakistan. As a result of the war, an estimated 10 million refugees from the newly formed People’s Republic of Bangladesh fled to India. Some of their descendants still live there.
Parallels between India and Myanmar
Now many of Assam’s 2 million “non-citizens” may be deported or held in detention centers.
India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, who visited Assam on September 8, announced, “The Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
Anuradha Sen Mookerjee, an Indian sociologist and former United Nations staff member, writes in The Conversation, a blog of various universities and research institutions: “It is very likely that the NRC process will cause great and long-lasting suffering associated with statelessness.”
The minister’s rhetoric and Mookerjee’s warning are a reminder of what is happening to the Rohingya people, who are officially called “Bengalis” in Myanmar to emphasize that the country considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are considered to be one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, and they are de facto stateless. Experts and the UN agree that statelessness exacerbates their precarious situation.
Since 2017, the Rohingya have been violently forced from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in what the UN has referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”
The situation of the Rohingya and the threatened statelessness of almost 2 million people in Assam are a consequence of the eventful history of Asia in the 21st century and the restrictive civil rights in these countries.
The roots of statelessness
Before the arrival of European colonialists, the idea of a nation state with people living within clearly defined borders was unknown in Asia.
Regional migrations were common, and there were fluid borders between the influential kingdoms and principalities.
Although Europeans introduced the idea of the nation state, what are now independent Asian countries were almost all part of European colonial empires. Thus, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (until 1937) belonged to British colonial India.
There was migration within the British Empire as well, which was not regarded as emigration or immigration because it took place within British India.
In fact, the British promoted migration as an important element of their divide-and–rule policy, and as a source of labor for big colonial projects. For example, the development of the Irrawaddy Delta, which made Burma (now Myanmar) a leading rice exporter, resulted from resettling workers from British India.
Problems with citizenship and naturalization laws
After the end of the Second World War, and with the independence of India and Pakistan (East and West) in 1947, an period of migration began in Asia.
“The collapse of empires and the drawing of new borders produced countless refugees. They also produced a patchwork of minorities within the new borders,” historian Sunil S. Amrith of Harvard University said. Exact figures are not available, but estimates suggest that 10 to 12 million people respectively emigrated to the other side after the partition of Pakistan and India.
Arbitrary division of culturally and linguistically related regions throughout Asia also created multi-ethnic and multi-religious states.
Between 1945 and 1950, the new states had to adopt new citizenship laws in the shortest possible time, and they adopted the laws of the colonial powers. This raised problems.
First, since independence, most Asian states have a law of descent. Accordingly, a state granted citizenship only to children whose parents (or at least one parent) were citizens of that state. This leads to very long periods of recognition especially when, as in the case of Assam, the deadline lies in the past.
Secondly, none of the countries in question offers simplified naturalization. This means that refugees and stateless persons have no chance of changing their status for generations.
Legal scholar Olivier Vonk recently wrote in his study Citizenship in Asia: “Asia is probably the only continent where citizenship is most jealously protected” as new nations want to secure their national identity.
International law barely recognized
Today, the demands of a modern bureaucracy still collide with historical realities. Many millions of people in South and Southeast Asia do not even have the documents necessary to prove citizenship. In colonial times and before that, there were often no birth certificates or these were lost as people fled.
The poor and landless often find themselves stateless as land ownership remains the best way of proving This very practical dimension is discussed far too little in India and Myanmar.
Read more: Myanmar land ownership law could displace millions of farmers
The current political climate in Asia also contributes to millions of stateless people. Still, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar have not signed any of the three UN conventions on the protection of refugees or stateless persons.