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Asia

7 min read

Asia hosts the largest number of people identified by UNHCR as being stateless, including the largest single population of stateless persons in the world, the Rohingya minority of Myanmar, numbering almost one million. However, statelessness is certainly significantly underreported: among several countries with missing statistics, UNHCR records no stateless persons in India or China, the two most populous countries in the world, despite known problems with nationality documentation and statelessness.

The causes of statelessness in the region include problems created by state succession affecting historical migrants among the former territories of the Soviet Union and British Empire. National laws are exclusively descent-based in many countries, generally lacking protections against statelessness, and discrimination on the basis of gender, race and religion are significant problems in South and South East Asia in particular. This creates an environment where minorities may be vulnerable to statelessness. A number of indigenous communities are also not recognized as nationals, despite long-term roots in their country of residence, as are some nomadic and other cross-border communities.

The crisis of statelessness among the Rohingya minority of Myanmar, as well as Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and across the region, represents not only the largest number of people from one community recorded as stateless anywhere in the world, but also the most severe form of persecution of people rendered stateless by deliberate government action. In 1982, Myanmar changed its law so that nationality was automatically acquired at birth only by members of 135 listed ethnic groups. Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country who mainly live in Rakhine (Arakan) state on the Bangladesh border, were among those excluded by this law; though other minorities, including people of Chinese or Indian origin, were also affected. After communal violence erupted in Rakhine state in early June 2012 the government stepped up its persecution, launching a campaign to forcibly relocate or remove the state’s Muslims; in 2017, violence against Rohingya escalated again, driving hundreds of thousands of new refugees into Bangladesh. Myanmar asserts that its Rohingya population are in fact Bangladeshi – a claim denied by Bangladesh, which does not recognize the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as nationals.

Communities divided by modern borders from ethnic kin face problems of statelessness in several states, including members of the ethnically Cambodian Khmer Krom community in Vietnam.

A somewhat similar presumption of foreignness applies to the descendants of historical migrants, including migrants who arrived before the country existed. Malaysia, for example, hosts tens of thousands of stateless descendants of Tamil migrant workers brought to the country by the British before independence. Similarly, the children of migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere born in Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo are unrecognized as nationals by any state. While the situation of people of Chinese ethnicity in Indonesia has improved through law reform undertaken in 2006, some are still stateless. Sri Lanka has undertaken major efforts to naturalize the descendants of Tamil migrants brought by the British to work on tea plantations, though some may still remain undocumented. Many Urdu speaking Biharis in Bangladesh were stateless, based on their support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence, though the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that they should be granted citizenship. There is a community of several hundred stateless people of Chinese ethnicity in Kolkata, India, descendants of a historically much larger population.

In Buddhist-majority Bhutan, too, around 80,000 people are estimated to be stateless, the majority of them Hindus of Nepali origin, the descendants of migrant workers arriving since the 19th century. Like Rohingya, members of this community were in the past recognized as citizens. However, a policy of ‘Bhutanization’ placed that status under threat. In 1977 and 1985, new citizenship acts tightened the qualifications for citizenship, creating a descent-based framework that required both parents to be citizens for a child to acquire citizenship at birth. A 1988 census marked an escalation in measures against Nepali-speakers, in which many were denied recognition of citizenship through the tightened application of these rules. More than 100,000 people fled or were expelled to Nepal and India, where they became stateless refugees; others remain stateless in Bhutan.

Nepal itself has a significant number of people at risk of statelessness in addition to the Nepali-Bhutanese, despite a campaign to increase documentation of nationals. Nepal is one of the 25 countries in the world where the law still retains gender discrimination in transmission of nationality to children: this leaves children of Nepali mothers at risk of statelessness, especially if they marry men from among the Bhutanese refugee community or from the Madhesi minority of Indian origin, who also face discrimination and difficulty in obtaining recognition of either Nepalese or Indian nationality. In Asia, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia also continue to discriminate against women in their ability to confer nationality on their children. In all these cases, gender discrimination leaves the children of mothers who are from minority groups at greater risk of statelessness – most of all if the child is born out of wedlock. If the father’s nationality is not in doubt, the child does not face that risk: even so, if that nationality is different from that of the mother, or of the country of birth, the child may be forced to accept a nationality that separates him or her from other members of the community.

Indigenous populations following traditional lifestyles in remote areas are also among those most at risk of statelessness. The indigenous people of Thailand’s highland regions, known as the ‘Hill Tribes’, form the majority of the half a million stateless people in Thailand reported by UNHCR. The Thai government has made efforts to increase access to nationality documentation for the stateless people living in these regions. The Orang Asli indigenous community in peninsular Malaysia has many of the same challenges in gaining access to documentation. Malaysia also hosts members of a stateless community also found in the Philippines and Indonesia, the Bajau (or Sama) Laut, or sea gypsies, who suffer from the risk of statelessness that affects nomadic peoples in many regions of the world (or those who are perceived to be nomadic, even if they are now settled). Moken hunter-gatherers found in the coastal regions of Myanmar and Thailand face similar problems.

Forced migrants form another category at risk of statelessness across the Asian region, including Rohingya refugees, as well as Tibetan refugees in India and elsewhere, and Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s still living in Vietnam who have not yet benefited from UNHCR’s efforts to persuade the Vietnamese government to grant them citizenship. Vietnamese-ethnicity refugees from Cambodia who returned to Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge also face statelessness. The northeast states of India, between Bangladesh and Burma, house a number of minority groups with origins in neighbouring countries now at risk of statelessness, including members of the Chakma people of Arunachal Pradesh, who fled Bangladesh in the 1960s, and other descendants of Bangladeshi refugees (or people asserted to be so) now living in neighbouring Assam.

Similarly, there are some thousands of Hindu refugees from the partition of Pakistan who live as stateless persons in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir; and an unknown number of stateless people among the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka still living in southern India. Pakistan also hosts refugees from the Bangladesh war of independence, including Bengalis, Biharis and Burmese who are not considered as nationals by Pakistan, Bangladesh or Myanmar. The decades of conflict in Afghanistan leave an undoubtedly large number of displaced persons at risk of statelessness, both inside and outside the country; among the most vulnerable are members of ethnic groups facing general discrimination, such as the traditionally nomadic heterogeneous set of communities known by the collective label of Jats.

Generally, the low rates of birth registration in South and South East Asia place children at risk of statelessness, especially those facing discrimination of various kinds, including perhaps up to 30 million children in China without official registration, many born in violation of the one-child policy or the children of North Korean refugees. In Indonesia, for example, legal and procedural obstacles mean that children born out of wedlock – or whose parents do not have a marriage certificate – are significantly less likely to have their births registered. This especially affects those who marry under customary or religious rites.

Across the countries of Central Asia, statelessness is largely a consequence of the persistence of ethnic-based discrimination in the aftermath of state succession, affecting minorities in particular. Although the majority of those who were not living in their ‘kin-state’ following the break-up of the Soviet Union have been able to resolve their status, UNHCR still reports stateless populations of several thousand in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and a total of more than 80,000 in Uzbekistan. Most of those affected are former Soviet citizens, of Russian or other Central Asian ethnicity. There is also a population of stateless Kazakhs in Mongolia.

The stateless populations in Asia illustrate global patterns, where the establishment of new boundaries in the aftermath of empire, or the uprooting of people by conflict, creates new minorities and leaves some at risk of statelessness. The creation of adequate systems to provide documentation of citizenship to those displaced, or with ties to several states, has not been a sufficient priority. Racism and other forms of discrimination have contributed to the persistence of statelessness among minorities, in some cases leaving multiple generations with no resolution of their status.

Photo: Ethnic Vietnamese children living on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. Credit: Pippa Hardisty.