South Asia’s ‘Citizens of Nowhere’
Updated: Aug 14
By Tom Cryer
As the clocks ticked forward into the new decade, UN officials could be forgiven for feeling burdened by the goals targeted in the upcoming years. Few human rights goals have been as ambitious as that to end statelessness by 2024, with 12 million people remaining without a legal nationality. Whilst instability in the Middle East and climate threats in the Sahel have been by now ‘factored in,’ it is in South Asia where such efforts appearing to be irrevocably floundering.
Early last month, whilst much of the UK was distracted with festive revelry, the Gambia spearheaded a resolution through The Hague criticizing Burmese human rights abuses against its ethnic minorities. The Gambia alleges genocide against the Muslim-minority Rohingya people, concentrated in the western Rakhine State which borders Bangladesh. Subsequently, the Noble Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the military which kept her under house arrest from 1989 to 2010, conceding that ‘disproportionate force’ may have been used yet calling claims of genocide ‘incomplete and incorrect.’ That the Gambia can only cite UN fact-finding reports to make a case for an intent towards genocide, a very specific claim under international law, however, means that proceedings will likely be only symbolic.
Ethnic cleansing may be easier to prove. Since Myanmar 1982’s nationality law, enforced by said military, the Rohingya have been officially identified as ‘Bengalis’—immigrants from Bangladesh who are consequently deprived of the citizenship available to Myanmar’s 135 ‘national races.’ In combination with the 1989 Citizenship Scrutiny law, which removed Rohingya National Registration Certificates, such legislation violates UDHR Article 15’s stipulation that ‘everyone has the right to a nationality.’ That Rohingya children are born ‘non-citizens’ also violates the ‘right to acquire a nationality’ principle of Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Myanmar in 1991. In the last five years growing ethnic violence has forced approximately 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, where close to a million refugees now form the largest refugee settlement in the world. According to Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, this was a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing,’ with Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams describing violence conducted ‘with a cruel efficiency that could only come with advance planning.’
It is clear, however, that Bangladesh has little desire for the Rohingya to overstay their welcome. For example, refugees are prohibited from accessing Bangladeshi schools, aid groups are barred from proving education within camps, and there are extensive restrictions on teaching the Bengali language. The government is currently surrounding refugee camps with barbed wire and guard towers and has enforced an internet blackout for some months now. This August, the two countries attempted to repatriate 3,450 Rohingya in collaboration with the UN. Precisely zero refugees were willing to do so. Given the destruction of Rohingya villages in Burma and the subsequent internment in camps of some 100,000 Rohingya, this is not altogether surprising. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has been developing infrastructure on the 15 square mile island of Bhasan Char to house the Rohingya. A flood-prone island formed from salt sediment around a decade ago, it lies a 3-hour boat ride from the mainland. Until recently, it had no roads and lay underwater every monsoon season. Small wonder the UN has described the suggestion as ‘logistically challenging.’
Meanwhile in India, the BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) triggered vast protests and left c. 2 million Bengali settlers in Assam at risk of statelessness. This recent Amendment states that ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’ facing ‘religious persecution’ need only live or work in India for six years prior to their application for naturalization, five years less than normal. Such an exemption for Muslims is conspicuous by its absence, with the UN therefore calling the Bill ‘fundamentally discriminatory.’ In so doing, the CAB violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obligates India not to deny citizenship on the basis of religion, and the legal equality for minorities required by the 1992 Declaration on Minorities. It also calls into question India’s pledge, made only one year ago, to maintain respect for human rights in all policies relating to migration, agreed under the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.
Attempts to make a National Register of Citizens have also caused recent controversy. In combination with the CAB, such a register would allow the state to specifically target Muslim illegal immigrants. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is on a clear rise— India is already suffering from its worst economic performance in 42 years and passions have been inflamed by the crisis in Kashmir, where numerous political leaders remain detained without charge. Recently, Home Minister Amit Shah has quite unrealistically pledged to exclude all illegal immigrants by 2024, arguing that ‘there is a fundamental difference between a refugee and an infiltrator.’ With protests growing in India’s universities, BJP politicians leading demonstrations in Delhi with chants of ‘shoot the traitors’ and police using ‘unnecessary deadly force’ to deal with protestors, killing 20, persistent infringement of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force by Law Enforcement Officials is likely to continue. In a country of India’s infinite variety and historic religious pluralism, this debate is of a simply existential nature. A persistent international watch is therefore needed, lest India’s c.170 million Muslims become the largest religious minority deprived of human rights in the world.