Statelessness is no new phenomenon in the world. Due to the bewildering array of causes, it’s a human-made problem affecting many lives and livelihoods. Despite that, no global data is available stating the exact number of stateless populations. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the estimated figure was around 12 million in 2009 (UNHCR;2009a). Given the global geopolitical scenario, the number must have been increasing tremendously. While a large number of people are affected by the phenomenon, research in the realm (causes and consequences) remains relatively sparse. Secondly, the power dynamics with the sections of stateless people and how it is exacerbating toll on women and girls. The paradox of international laws, on the one hand, vouches for preventing human rights violations by the state. However, the same international law provides prerogative to states of determining formal membership/citizenship, which is often at odds with the protection of human rights. (Weissbrodt & Collins; 2006).
Statelessness first got attention after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of people were rendered stateless and refugees. This mass influx of population and denationalisation came as the motivation for the inclusion of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which asserts: “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one should be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” However, the statement postulates that the state largely guides human rights (Berkeley, 2009). In addition, Article 15 of the UDHR does not specifically answer which state should grant nationality to whom and under what circumstances and for how long? – it gives sovereign power to each state to determine the procedure, prerequisites and conditions for acquisition or loss of citizenship of their countries. The delicate political and economic nature of the phenomenon makes it difficult to comprehend the entire situation. For instance, getting the exact population of stateless persons worldwide becomes impossible when a significant number of states are reluctant to provide data concerning their territory. Article 1(1) of the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954, defines a stateless as a ‘person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.’ [Article 1 (1) Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954]. These orphans of the world are often referred to as the ‘invisible problem’ because their concerns are, at large, neglected by the state, because of the state’s dubious stance on their existence. They are usually deprived of their basic minimum needs like access to a doctor, education, employment opportunities etc. This rhetoric doesn’t only impact them as an individual but also taints the social fabric because excluding a complete sector of the population is bound to create social tension. There were several issues that the Bihari population faced in Bangladesh due to the lack of paperwork, they were deprived of the right to vote, and right to acquire property and were often victimized by social abuse. (Farzana, 2008). There are a multitude of causes to this. While some cases are more specific than the rest. Categorially there are three major factors – a) state succession, the breakup of states, transfer of territory or sovereignty or unification in other nation states, leading to a situation where a sector of the population fails to secure citizenship. For example, the partition of the Indian subcontinent, in 1947. b) technical problems; due to unintended gaps and conflict of law. For example, when children are born in a country that grants citizenship through descent, they cannot automatically acquire citizenship if the parents’ origin country grants citizenship by birth. c) Some states arbitrarily deprive nationality to an individual or a specific group of people based on discriminatory laws. Another example is the African sub-continent where 20 countries do not allow women to transfer their nationality to a foreign spouse. (Goris, Harrington, Kohn, 2009).
These orphans of the world are often referred to as the ‘invisible problem’ because their concerns are, at large, neglected by the state, because of the state’s dubious stance on their existence. They are usually deprived of their basic minimum needs like access to a doctor, education, employment opportunities etc.
International Framework and South Asia
In all six countries, citizenship law is based upon ‘jus sanguinis’, i.e., nationality policy determined by the parents (the ‘blood-origin’ principle), rather than ‘jus soli’, which determines citizenship based on birth.
Apart from the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness was adopted in 1961. The convention aimed at guiding the countries on how to prevent children from becoming stateless at birth and prevent and protect them from losing nationality at the later stages of their lives (UNHCR, 2006). However, the international response in support of these instruments is highly dissatisfactory as only 33 nations are party to the 1961 convention. Despite experiencing one of the largest population movements and influx, none of the region’s nation-states are parties to either convention. In all six countries, citizenship law is based upon ‘jus sanguinis’, i.e., nationality policy determined by the parents (the ‘blood-origin’ principle), rather than ‘jus soli’, which determines citizenship based on birth.
The Stateless and Women
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), is the most widely ratified human rights treaty. Its mandate applies to displaced and stateless persons affected by gender discrimination. Several states have patriarchal citizenship policies, and women and girls are vulnerable during conflict and in its aftermath. With its purview, CEDAW can complement UNHCR’s supervisory role in the welfare of stateless people. (Edwards, 2009) The gap between the different conventions gives leeway to nation-states to function in their desired way.
The history of sexual violence postulates that in times of crisis, women’s bodies are the terrain on which enemies are subjugated and superiority is claimed through brute masculinity (Chakraborty, 2021)
A politicised stance on asylum seekers and complex registration structures determines the plight of refugees and ‘illegal migrants’ in South Asia. Nevertheless, citizenship deficits affect genders disproportionately, especially in conflict-ridden areas where a woman’s chastity became a prime part of psychosis. The history of sexual violence postulates that in times of crisis, women’s bodies are the terrain on which enemies are subjugated and superiority is claimed through brute masculinity (Chakraborty, 2021). The region is filled with many examples to support the argument, including the situation of stateless women in Bangladesh, especially during additional stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the ethnic minority groups that face extreme violence in their home state – Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled from their homeland, seeking asylum in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Dubious stance of governments on the very existence of these people thus allowing them to be dehumanised easily. Unregistered Rohingya women and children are even more vulnerable to deadly infections because they lack access to health care, are at a higher risk of malnutrition, and are at an increased risk of spreading infectious diseases. The local security force perpetrates sexual and gender-based violence, mistreatment, and brutality.
The politicisation of nondiscrimination and protection principles for refugees, laid out in the respective conventions, creates rightlessness for these stateless persons. Their existence is often subjected to stigmatisation and dehumanisation that precede a steep rise in violence against them. Camps in Cox’s Bazar is one such example. Within that camp, the dynamics change when one starts discussing unregistered Rohingyas. With Bangladesh’s economy struggling to feed its citizens, any refugee is an additional burden at this time. In addition, Bangladesh doesn’t have profound bilateral relations with Myanmar, and the border between the two nation-states is porous, allowing it to be subjected to rampant influx. Despite the conditions listed above, humans should be treated with dignity. A one-size-fits-all approach fails to uphold pragmatism, so some laws are needed as guiding principles. To protect these individuals, it is imperative to ratify the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on Statelessness and uphold their human rights regardless of nationality.
- The United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, (UNHCR). 2009a. ‘Addressing Situations of Statelessness, UNHCR Global Appeal, 2009 Update,’ 45-48.
- Weissbrodt D. and Collins C. 2006. ‘The Human Rights of Stateless Persons,’ in Human Rights Quarterly, 28(1). Pp. 245-275
- Article 1 (1) Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954
- K Fahmida. 2008. ‘The Neglected Stateless Bihari Community in Bangladesh: Victims of Political and Diplomatic Onslaught.’ Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol.2, Issue 1.
- Goris I, Harrington J, Kohn S. 2009. ‘Statelessness: What it is and Why It Matters.’ Forced Migration Review.
- ‘UNHCR’s Activities in the Field of Statelessness: Progress Report.’ Refugee Survey Quarterly. UNHCR. 2006.
- Edwards A. 2009. ‘Displacement, Statelessness and Questions of Gender Equality and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.’ University of Nottingham. UNHCR.
- CHAKRABORTY, ROSHNI, and JACQUELINE BHABHA. “Fault Lines of Refugee Exclusion: Statelessness, Gender, and COVID-19 in South Asia.” Health and Human Rights, vol. 23, no. 1, 2021, pp. 237–50. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27040050. Accessed 2 May 2023.
- Toulemonde M. 2020. ‘COVID-19 Outbreak: Cox’s Bazar rapid gender analysis.’ Inter Sector Coordination Group, UN Women, CARE, and Oxfam. 6 May 2020. p.17
Zaheena Naqvi is a Research Intern at CSPS