“We are being treated differently from other ethnicities. We should be able to get citizenship as we did with the 1947 citizenship law. This 1982 law should be eliminated. We are not immigrants… Our family can show the full documents…that prove we are indigenous people of Myanmar.”

Win Naing, Rohingya university student in Myanmar

KEY ISSUES

  • Asia and the Pacific is home to an estimated 2.4 million stateless people – over half of the world’s stateless population that is accounted for within global statelessness data. As in other parts of the world, this figure is likely to be a significant underrepresentation of the scale of statelessness and nationality problems in the region.
  • Discrimination is the major catalyst for statelessness in the region, with the Rohingya community serving as the most extreme example of deliberate and targeted exclusion, in their case coupled with persecution and forced displacement. Rohingya refugees face discrimination in host countries while being unable to return safely to Myanmar.
  • Five of the 24 countries worldwide where mothers are unable to confer their nationality on equal grounds with men are found in Asia and the Pacific, though in some of these states there have been signs of progress through jurisprudence and planned legal reform.
  • In Central Asia, the dissolution of the Soviet Union left a large number of people stateless. Over the past decade, states in the subregion have made significant progress towards resolving these cases of statelessness.
  • Childhood statelessness, statelessness in a migratory context – affecting refugees, migrants and mobile or nomadic maritime people, and the risk of climate-induced statelessness are all also issues of concern in Asia and the Pacific.
  • There is no encompassing regional human rights framework for the Asia and Pacific region, but some standards exist at sub-regional level which include the right to a nationality. The level of accession to the statelessness conventions remains very low and states in the region have been less active in making recommendations on nationality and statelessness in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

OVERVIEW OF STATELESSNESS IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC

Statelessness is a pervasive problem in Asia and the Pacific. Decolonisation, state succession and state formation processes have left a legacy of intergenerational exclusion, while new cases continue to arise as a result of discrimination, denationalisation and gaps in both law and administrative practice that leave people without (proof of) citizenship. As such, the root causes of statelessness across the region are diverse, with some being particular to certain sub-regions. 

According to UNHCR statistics from 2023, the Asia and Pacific region is home to an estimated 2.5 million stateless people. This means that the region is home to nearly 55% of the world’s stateless population that is accounted for within the global statelessness data compiled and reported by UNHCR. As in other parts of the world, this figure is likely to be a significant underrepresentation of the scale of statelessness and nationality problems in the region. One reason for this is that several Asian countries that have large populations are marked with an asterisk (*) in global statistics, indicating that UNHCR has information about stateless persons but no reliable data to report. Among these countries are China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Moreover, the reporting for India, Indonesia, Nepal, Iran, and Papua New Guinea, includes only forcibly displaced stateless people, mainly of Rohingya ethnicity, whose presence in the country has been recorded – without providing data on other groups affected by statelessness. This creates a significantly understated picture of the scale of statelessness, especially as countries like India, Pakistan, and Indonesia are known to also be home to sizeable non-displaced stateless populations. Moreover, the data reported does not account for evolving developments in the region, such as the fall-out emerging from the introduction in India of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act that entered into force on 1 January 2020. 

ETHNIC AND GENDER DISCRIMINATION

In Southeast Asia and South Asia, discriminatory laws, policies and practices on the basis of gender, race and religion have significantly contributed to statelessness. The Rohingya continue to serve as the largest and most extreme example of this type of deliberate and targeted exclusion, which in their case has been coupled with, and served as a catalyst for, persecution and forced displacement. More generally, Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law and the manner in which it has been implemented, is discriminatory and unnecessarily complex: “the multi-tiered and hierarchical citizenship scheme it offers […] privileges recognised ethnic groups, disadvantages unrecognised groups and racially discriminates in the acquisition of nationality”. This system has been found to also put a number of other groups at risk of exclusion and statelessness in Myanmar. In Thailand, statelessness also predominantly members of various indigenous and minority communities, collectively known as “hill tribes”. Although they have been living in the border areas for generations, they have faced exclusion from citizenship and difficulties accessing even basic documentation. Thailand has gradually reformed its nationality and civil registration laws to make it easier for people to claim their citizenship, but there are still over half a million stateless people in the country – one of the largest stateless populations in the world. In Assam, India, 1.9 million people have been pushed to the brink of statelessness after the Indian government excluded them from the National Registry of Citizens upon its publication in August 2019. Over 140,000 of those affected were subsequently declared foreigners under the appeals process before the “Foreigners Tribunals”. Here too, this process has had a particular impact on minority groups. 

Gender discrimination in nationality laws also causes statelessness in the region. While many countries have reformed their gender discriminatory nationality laws in the past 15 years, Nepal, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Kiribati and Iran continue to discriminate against women in their ability to pass nationality to their children. These are five of the 24 countries worldwide where mothers are unable to confer their nationality on equal grounds with men. Nepal and Brunei Darussalam have some of the world's most extreme forms of gender discrimination in their nationality laws on conferral of nationality on children, as women from these countries cannot confer nationality to their children under any circumstances. Positively, in February 2023, the Cabinet in Malaysia committed to amending the discriminatory provisions in its Federal Constitution that prevent Malaysian women from being able to confer nationality on their children born abroad. However, within the same list of proposed legislative amendments, the government is also intending to remove a vital safeguard against childhood statelessness and replace the automatic attribution of citizenship to foundlings with a discretionary procedure.

DECOLONISATION AND STATE SUCCESSION

In South and Southeast Asia, decolonisation and the administration of populations post-independence created significant statelessness issues in a number of countries – in particular for minority communities. For instance, when Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, a large population of Tamils residing in the “Hill Country” were denied citizenship in the new state. Amidst domestic political campaigns and pressure from the Indian government for a resolution, members of the Hill Country Tamil community had their citizenship restored through successive rounds of diplomatic agreements, political negotiations and law reform between the 1960s and the early 2000s. However, the legacy of statelessness has meant that Hill Country Tamils remain one of the most discriminated against and economically, socially and politically marginalised communities in the country. Similarly, in Bangladesh, the Urdu-speaking minority (sometimes referred to as Biharis) experienced many decades of statelessness, the legacy of which endures to this day. They were denied recognition as Bangladeshi citizens following the country’s independence, due to their perceived connection with Pakistan. Despite their right to nationality being recognised in 2008, the Urdu-speaking Bihari minority continue to face discrimination in access to citizenship rights, with many unable to access civil registration services or passports.  In Malaysia, people who have resided in the country since before independence, but were not able to acquire or establish citizenship, are among those who continue to be affected by statelessness. These include Indian and Chinese migrants and their descendants who arrived in the country through a labour recruitment system.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of people were left stateless in successor states across Central Asia (and Europe). A total of 280 million people had lost their citizenship, including a total of 60 million in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The statelessness problem in this sub-region is largely a result of state succession with thousands left stateless or with undetermined nationality after failing to acquire the nationality of the states with which they had ties through birth, decent or habitual residence. Also impacted were labour migrants, who, on trying to move back to their ethnic homelands were no longer considered citizens as they left these homelands when they were citizens of Soviet Russia with Soviet documentation and therefore were not considered citizens of / did not hold documentation of the territories as they were re-formed to be. Since then, the vast majority of these people have received a nationality, but statelessness is still a problem: at the end of December 2022, 46,079 were reported stateless in Central Asia, although reporting issues persist and the true number is believed to be higher. Nevertheless, substantial progress has been made in addressing statelessness over the past few years. In 2019, Kyrgyzstan was reported to be the first country in the world to “resolve all known cases of statelessness”, although incomplete safeguards in domestic legislation mean that people continue to be rendered stateless. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have also enacted law reforms to facilitate naturalisation or improve safeguards against statelessness.

CHILDHOOD STATELESSNESS

The principle of jus sanguinis dominates legal frameworks across the Asia and Pacific region, meaning that nationality is generally acquired by descent from a parent who holds citizenship. The laws of two states actually provide that citizenship can only be acquired by children if both parents are citizens (Bhutan and Myanmar). Most states in the region do not have adequate safeguards to guarantee access to nationality for children born in their territory who would otherwise be stateless – such safeguards are either entirely missing or are limited in their scope or application. As a result, children continue to be born stateless in Asia and the Pacific – whether in the context of discriminatory laws, conflicts of law situations or the intergenerational perpetuation of statelessness. Several states in the region also fail to provide specific protections to fulfil the right to a nationality for foundlings.

Administrative barriers to accessing citizenship also contribute significantly to cases of statelessness or to leaving people with an uncertain nationality status, even in states across the region where citizenship laws do provide protection. In South and Southeast Asia, ethnic minority communities as well as migrant and refugee populations, face barriers to accessing civil registration, with consequences for the ability to establish entitlement to citizenship. In East Asia, the household registration plays a central role “ in verifying one’s citizenship and realising the associated rights [and] the impact of these systems on the realisation of citizenship is specifically notable in China, Japan and South Korea among children of migrants, ethnic minority groups and those of uncertain nationalities”

STATELESSNESS IN THE CONTEXT OF MIGRATION AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Migration and displacement are also a cause of statelessness in the region and can exacerbate the effects of discriminatory citizenship laws and practices. For instance, after being forcibly displaced during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, many Cambodians who were in exile in Vietnam lost their documentation or any proof of having lived in Cambodia. This has resulted in problems with recognition of nationality. While some have since regained Cambodian citizenship, others remained stateless – in Vietnam and/or following return to Cambodia

Groups whose traditional lifestyles are based on travel across the contemporary borders of states are also vulnerable to statelessness. The Sama Dilaut or Bajut Laut, a mobile or nomadic maritime people of Southeast Asia, are one such group who face acute discrimination and risk of statelessness. Administrative and practical barriers to accessing birth registration have placed as many as 130,000 Sama Dilaut community members — who reside in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia — at risk of statelessness.

Climate change is likely to also increase the incidence of statelessness in the region. As climate change causes more frequent and extreme weather events, more people are displaced by floods, cyclones and droughts – and people on the move are at greater risk of becoming stateless. The Pacific, in particular, faces some of the greatest risks and has seen the greatest attention regarding the threat of climate-induced statelessness, including with regard to the situation of low-lying island states and what will happen when the territory is no longer habitable. There is no precedent for loss of the entire territory or exile of the entire population, and how international law would apply in such a scenario remains a subject of debate. Most experts, however, “have concluded that the “sinking island” scenario will not inevitably leave island inhabitants stateless”

REGIONAL STANDARDS AND COMMITMENTS

There is no encompassing regional human rights framework for the Asia and Pacific region, with its own treaty, court and commission (or equivalent bodies), of the kind that exists in Africa, the Americas and Europe. This means that there are no generally applicable regional norms or jurisprudence dealing with the human rights of stateless persons or the right to a nationality. Nevertheless, some standards exist at sub-regional level. For example, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted its own non-binding Human Rights Declaration in 2012, which largely mirrors the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration affirms that: “Every person has the right to a nationality as prescribed by law. No person shall be arbitrarily deprived of such nationality nor denied the right to change that nationality”. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) focus their work on developing strategies for the promotion and protection of human rights in this sub-region. The ACWC is, for example, mandated to propose and support appropriate measures relating to the elimination of all forms of violation of the rights of women and children and has taken an interest in nationality and statelessness issues. In 2021, ACWC and UNHCR released a report on the legal identity of women and children in ASEAN, with recommendations for ASEAN Member States, ACWC, and UNHCR. Of relevance to Central Asia, is the Commonwealth of Independent States Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted in 1995, which also includes the right to nationality and prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of nationality (Article 24) – although this instrument is not widely ratified. The Asian African Legal Consultative Organisation (AALCO) adopted a resolution on “Legal identity and Statelessness” in 2006 and has since paid some attention to the issue as part of its engagement on the "Status and Treatment of Refugees".

In the absence of a regional human rights framework, international standards gain greater significance. However, the level of accession to the statelessness conventions in the region remains very low, with only four countries parties to both Statelessness Conventions (Australia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and the Philippines). The Republic of Korea is a party to only the 1954 Convention and New Zealand to the 1961 Convention. In 2019, Tajikistan made a pledge to accede to the statelessness conventions, and in 2022, Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice organised an International Workshop on Accession to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, neither country has followed through with accession. While in some other parts of the world the Conventions are moving closer towards universal acceptance, this is not the case in Asia and the Pacific.

Accession rates to the core UN human rights treaties show a more mixed picture. The CRC and CEDAW conventions are widely ratified, but some states maintain reservations to the articles that address the right to nationality (Article 7 CRC and Article 9 CEDAW). Fewer, but still a significant number, of states in Asia and the Pacific are also state parties to the ICCPR and/or ICERD. States in Asia and the Pacific have tended to engage less than those in most other regions in making recommendations relating to nationality and statelessness within the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process. It is worth noting that where such recommendations have been made, a significant proportion has been directed towards states within the same region – i.e. other states in Asia and the Pacific.  

 

[Last updated January 2024]

Cover image by Rafa Prada

Voices & Experiences

  • Discrimination in Myanmar

    Myanmar picture 1

    Discrimination in Myanmar

    Myanmar picture 1

    “We are being treated differently from other ethnicities. We should be able to get citizenship as we did with the 1947 citizenship law. This 1982 law should be eliminated. We are not immigrants… Our family can show the full documents…that prove we are indigenous people of Myanmar”. 

    Win Naing, Rohingya university student in Myanmar 

     

     

    Discrimination stands as the primary driver of statelessness in the region, exemplified most severely by the Rohingya community, who endure deliberate exclusion alongside persecution and forced displacement. Rohingya refugees encounter discrimination in host nations and remain unable to safely return to Myanmar. 

     

    Voice from: https://files.institutesi.org/Access_to_Citizenship_in_Myanmar_Report.pdf

  • COVID-19 Worsened Urdu-Speaking Bihari’s Conditions in Bangladeshi Camps

    Bangladesh

    COVID-19 Worsened Urdu-Speaking Bihari’s Conditions in Bangladeshi Camps

    Bangladesh

    “My 6-year-old daughter was suffering from a cold and severe ear pain. I went to government hospital for treatment, but I did not get the hospital ticket when I said my address was Mirpur Bihari camp. The registrar refused me and said, “camps and camp dwellers are most vulnerable for the corona virus.” 

    Affected person

     

     

    The Urdu speaking community commonly referred to as the ‘Bihari’ fled to Bangladesh from Bihar, during the partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Many of this community chose to side with Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, leading to their loyalty to the new state being questioned. Bangladeshi authorities later recognised them as waiting to be ‘repatriated’ back to Pakistan. As a result, they were not recognised as Bangladeshi and most were rendered stateless. In 2008, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court recognised Biharis’ right to Bangladeshi citizenship and ordered the issuance of ID cards and their inclusion on voter rolls. However, they still face discrimination in access to citizenship rights, with many unable to access civil registration services or passports. They face poor sanitation conditions, inadequate access to clean water, inadequate housing, high levels of poverty and unemployment and poor access to education. The Urdu speaking community, in particular, those living in the ‘refugee camps’, were at heightened risk during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their living conditions and lack of access to services.  

     

    Voice from https://files.institutesi.org/together_we_can_report_2021.pdf  

  • Nationality Deprivation in Assam

    Assam

    Nationality Deprivation in Assam

    Assam

    “The experience from the Indian State of Assam is also relevant because the Indian Government may implement the ‘Assam Model’ across India, resulting in a disproportionate rise of stateless persons globally, at a time when the United Nations is actively pursuing the reduction of statelessness across the globe.” 

    Talha Abdul Rahman 

    Supreme Court of India

     

     

    There is a crisis of statelessness in Assam, India. In August 2019, 1.9 million people were deemed ‘non-citizens’ and deprived of their nationality following the arbitrary and highly discriminatory National Register of Citizens (NRC) which sought to remove the names of alleged undocumented migrants from the voters list and update NRC, predominantly targeting Muslims and Hindus of Bengali ethnicity.  

     

    Voice from https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/stlenctzr2&div=11&id=&page=  

Latest Resources: Asia and the Pacific

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