In the nearly five decades since its inception, Bangladesh has consistently been a host nation for multiple groups of stateless people. Key groups among them are the Urdu-speaking Biharis, the Rohingya from Myanmar and other groups of Indian descent who have fled to Bangladesh in pursuit of a haven.
The internationally-accepted legal definition of “statelessness” is: “A person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operations of its law.” In simpler terms, it indicates any person that has no nationality of any country.
Originally immigrating to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) – after the secession of India and Pakistan in 1947 – the Urdu-speaking, Muslim Bihari population were seeking a new home and years of oppression and discrimination by the Hindu majority of Bihar were pivotal to their immigration. Until the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, Biharis were citizens of Pakistan.
Left behind by the Pakistanis after the war with false promises of being transported back to mainland Pakistan, the Bihari people lived in unimaginable conditions in tightly-packed places without basic amenities. A tug of war as to which nation they belong to, between Bangladesh and Pakistan, proceeded to persist for the next 37 years.
In May 2008, the High Court Division of Bangladesh held that any Urdu speaker born in Bangladesh, or whose father or grandfather was born in Bangladesh, and who was a permanent resident in 1971 – or who has permanently resided in Bangladesh since 1971 – is a citizen “by operation of law”. This essentially confirmed the citizenship of most members of this community. Persons who affirm or acknowledge allegiance to a foreign state (such as Pakistan) may be disqualified.
In 1978, 1991-1992, and 2016, several waves of Rohingya from Myanmar came flooding into Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it was in 2017 – after facing inhumane, government-sanctioned persecution – that Bangladesh witnessed the largest influx of Rohingya refugees crossing the border.
The ones that managed to make it across, mostly women and children, gave vivid accounts of unbelievable atrocity and horror. The morbid stories brought forth by these survivors opened the eyes of the world to the ethnic cleansing taking place in Rakhine, right across the Bangladesh-Myanmar Line of Control.
Now that Bangladesh’s role in this global phenomena has been highlighted, it is imperative to assess what kind of actions by governments constitute a consequence as severe as leaving millions of people stateless.
Apparent gaps in the nationality laws of many countries are a major contributor. All countries have written or implied nationality laws that determine who qualifies to be a citizen and who does not. When applied incorrectly, by will or not, it tends to leave large groups or even communities without any national recognition as its citizen, therein creating a crisis not only for the country in question, but every other country within the region.
An example of this is the self-inflicted Rohingya crisis by the Myanmar government.
Another factor that results in statelessness occurs when individuals emigrate from the nation of their birth. Depending on the nationality laws of the country of immigration, any child born there will not be a citizen of that country if their laws dictate that citizenship will not be given to any persons based on birth alone. Often, such nationality laws may be discriminatory towards certain ethnicities, genders or communities.
And the additional key factor is the emergence of new states, or drastic changes in borders between neighbouring countries (eg Russian annexation of Crimea, in the Ukraine). A change of that magnitude tends to leave many people in a state of dysfunction and confusion, often not being able to comprehend to which state they currently belong.
Many countries have laws that deprive individuals from exercising their rights as citizens if they have not renewed their citizenship documents or returned them in the prescribed period of time.
Additionally, discriminatory laws targeting specific groups can also be enacted to deprive citizens of their status and make them stateless. An example of this can be seen through the developing crisis in Assam, for example.
Despite these concerns, it is refreshing to know that Bangladesh maintains a track record of not indulging in such illicit practices. Instead, the focus here remains on ascertaining the citizenship of every Bangladeshi, while serving as a haven for millions of people escaping injustice in the regions surrounding Bangladesh.
Wasif Jamal Khan is president, Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs. DHAKA TRIBUNE