Statelessness on the Rise as India’s Latest Change of Law Excludes Over Four Million

indian family

Citizenship and statehood is not something that the majority of us will think about day to day. They are aspects of our life that for most are a given from birth, but for some, statehood is a struggle with the potential to turn lives upside down. As of December 2017, the UNHCR recorded 3.2million individuals officially existing as stateless people, with the true number expected to be even higher.

“[S]tatelessness involves high political stakes worldwide and therefore remains among the most overlooked issues on the human rights agenda.” – Al Jazeera

A person is stateless when they are “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law” (1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, art. 1). Sounds crazy right? How can someone not ‘have’ a country, surely everyone comes from or belongs somewhere? The easy answer is yes, everyone does come from somewhere. But, owing to technicalities in laws and practices, millions of people around the world fall into a void, a no mans land if you like, where they live a life without the luxury of status or belonging. Statelessness creates a chasm between an individual and their community and prohibits them from living life in harmony with the society around them.

Without going into the technicalities of the nationality laws of every country in the world, these are the four predominant reasons that the UNHCR have identified as the causes of statelessness.

  1. Gaps in poorly written nationality laws which prevent nationality being passed on. Nationality laws are decided by the state. Most commonly states depict that you can ascertain citizenship via your parents at birth, or through being born in the country you ‘should be’ a national of. If there are gaps in the law, a child born to unknown parentage in a country which passes on nationality through the bloodline, may end up stateless from birth.
  2. Being born abroad. Due to the fact that countries make their own nationality laws, occurrences like this can cause a clash of laws which render a child stateless. If a child is born in a country which will not grant citizenship of that country just through being born on their soil, but their country of ‘origin’ does not permit citizenship via bloodline only (e.g. you must be born on the soil of the country), then again, a child risks falling into a vacuum where it is neither a national of their country of origin, or the foreign country. As more and more people choose to live and work abroad, this is becoming an increasingly difficult obstacle.
  3. The creation of new borders and new states. Many people can be left without a nationality if this occurs. For example in the 1990’s the dissolution of Yugoslavia rendered thousands stateless, many of whom remain stateless to this day. The ‘new’ states may enact nationality laws which conflict with the citizenship people already have, or new laws set for nationality may discriminate against certain races or ethnicities.
  4. Nationality withdrawn. In some instances, states can revoke nationality of an individual if they have lived outside the country for too long. Additionally, states have been known to change nationality laws which discriminate against certain races or ethnicities and render them stateless.

Alongside these causes, many issues of statelessness are deep rooted in the wider issues of gender inequality. As many as 27 states have discriminatory laws which prevent women passing on citizenship to their child in certain instances. For example in Nepal, if a Nepalese woman has a child with a foreign man, she may not pass on Nepalese nationality. Yet, if a Nepalese man has a child with a foreign woman, the child is able to ascertain Nepalese citizenship. Unequal laws like this are continuing to foster generations of stateless people. Click here to watch a short video discussing the issue of women and citizenship.

What are the consequences of being a stateless person?

If you’ve never experienced statelessness or gone out of your way to read about it, you may be in for a shock when you discover how much of a hinderance it can be to the normal functioning of everyday life.

Being stateless is more than just not having a country in which to say you are from. Being stateless can mean the state doesn’t even know you exist, and you have little way to prove that you do. It means that you don’t have a birth certificate, a passport or an ID. Consequently, you have no way of proving who you are and moving across borders is nigh on impossible unless done illicitly. No identification means that you cannot find work, you cannot own or drive a car, and you cannot officially purchase or live in property. Additionally you cannot have bank accounts, cannot access medical care and children cannot go to school.

roma children

The concept of statelessness creates a vicious cycle. All of the above are prevented because a stateless person cannot prove who they are as they do not have, or are not entitled to documentation. Thus, a stateless person cannot work unless done illegally, consequently creating a poorer population who are less likely to be educated and understand the laws on citizenship or issues such as the importance of recording births. Subsequently, many stateless people fall into a life of poverty induced crime as a means to exist where they are otherwise denied school, work or healthcare. Understandably this exacerbates the poor conditions that many stateless people find themselves trying to survive in.

“Stateless persons are denied the right to nationality. They are extremely vulnerable to discrimination and persecution.” – The Equal Rights Trust

Some examples of the most known stateless populations from around the world include the the Rohingya Muslims, the Syrian Kurds, and Roma people rendered stateless from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Statelessness is not a life that people choose, it is a life inflicted on people through discrimination and persecution.

The current stateless situation in India

So, what is the latest news from India that prompted a divulgence into the concept of statelessness? On Monday 30th July 2018 India released its latest draft list of citizens in the Assam region, except it excluded nearly four million of the residents that currently live there.

Four million is far from an insignificant number and rights groups have labelled the list as discriminatory. The new criteria which resulted in the exclusion of some four million is that to qualify as citizens, residents must prove that they have lived in the region before March 24th 1971. To understand the reasoning behind this first requires a small amount of history.

In 1947 when Pakistan separated from India for religious reasons, it took with it the former Indian region of East Bengal. Separated by the vast amount of land between them which comprised Northern India, Pakistan became known as West Pakistan and the Bengali region as East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). Cultural clashes between East and West resulted in East Pakistan asserting their right to self determination. In a bid to suppress an uprising, on March 25th 1971, West Pakistan launched attacks on East Pakistan in what has been termed a genocide. The proceeding war triggered by this event encouraged a sudden flow of refugees from East Pakistan into parts of India which surrounded it. The Assam region of India was one area in particular, that many whom were trying to escape genocidal atrocities, ended up settling.

assam indiaAbove you can see the Assam region of India adjoining Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) 

So now the criteria set by Indian officials which requires them to prove residency before March 24th 1971 makes sense. It seems that the latest draft lists of citizens is purposefully discriminating against Bangladeshi refugees who would have settled in Assam during the war of independence which began on March 25th 1971. By requiring proof that you lived there before this date, it is procedurally impossible for the many refugees who fled there during this time frame to be granted Indian citizenship. Even those who have lived there for the last 40+ years, who own land and businesses, will be declared stateless according to this list if they did not settle there before March 24th 1971.

“[I]n an era of increasing ethnic tension, mass migrations of people and governments ever more reluctant to ‘welcome’ refugees or other groups, the number of stateless persons appears bound to continue growing for the foreseeable future.” – UNHCR

This blatant discrimination against the Bangladeshi refugees is just another example of the plight that refugees face all over the world to rebuild normal lives. Furthermore, the majority of the population excluded by this criteria are Muslims, adding another layer of discrimination to this shocking act.


Officials have stated that this list is not final and residents left off the list will have the chance to appeal and prove their entitlement to citizenship. However, for those refugees it is clearly seeking to exclude this is worthless. Additionally, for those who genuinely are entitled to citizenship and have been there since before March 24th 1971, but have no documentation to prove it, they too will also be rendered stateless as an unfortunate consequence of the discrimination.

[NB: Children born after 1971 will have to prove their parents or grandparents settled there before March 4th 1971]

“[T]here is a chance that India will end up “creating the newest cohort of stateless people” – similar to the Rohingyas of Myanmar.” – BBC News

This is the perfect example of criterion number 4 discussed earlier when outlining the causes of statelessness. The state has altered and implemented new nationality laws which discriminate against a certain population and suddenly render them stateless. It is frightening how easily it is done. Millions now plunged overnight into the struggle of statelessness, many of whom will now succumb to crime as they illicitly cross borders in attempt to reach somewhere in which they can gain a citizenship, an identity, and a means to live.

The situation currently is a pressure cooker. As residents await the final list there is a risk of violent outbursts from those who have suddenly been stripped of their rights. There is the potential for mass deportation to occur, but the question is to where? Bangladesh has shown no willingness to accept people that India don’t want and concerns grow for this incredibly large and new stateless population.

The final draft has not yet been published, although we know that it makes no difference for the refugees regardless. The blog will be updated accordingly when news arises on this matter.

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