We the participants, of an international consultation on ‘Human Rights of Stateless People’ organised by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and hosted by the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh from 16 to 18 December 2011 at the HOPE Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh share our experiences and concerns on the situation of the stateless people. We represented churches, national ecumenical councils, international organisations and the CCIA at this Consultation.
The information we received at the consultation, as well as our face to face meetings with stateless people during the field visits, helped us to understand the gravity of the problem of statelessness. Thematic presentations at the Consultation addressed various aspects of statelessness, such as human rights of stateless people and international instruments protecting their rights, stateless people of Nepal, stateless people in Bangladesh, situation of Rohingyas in Arkan state of Myanmar, and advocacy on the protection of the rights of stateless people.
Statelessness: a neglected concern
The ‘stateless persons’, who are not recognised as nationals by any state have no nationality or citizenship and they live in vulnerable situations. As the stateless people living in particular geographical area are not protected by any national legislation, the consequences of their situations of statelessness are profound. Statelessness that affects all aspects of life is a massive problem for twelve million people, who are located in different parts of the world. These people became stateless due to various reasons and circumstances; as a result of the denial of citizenship in situations such as when states simply ceased to exist while individuals failed to get citizenship in their successor states; political considerations that dictated changes in the way citizenship laws were applied; persecutions of ethnic minorities and discrimination of indigenous people, etc. There are also individuals who became stateless due to personal circumstances, rather than persecution of a group to which they belong. The statelessness of people in South Asia belongs to most of these categories and is due to several of these factors.
Prior to the Consultation, four teams of participants have had the opportunities to visit camps and communities of stateless people in different parts of Bangladesh and Nepal which helped them to understand the miserable life situations of stateless people - the Rohingyas and Biharis in Bangladesh; and Bhutanese and Tibetans in Nepal. The group, which visited Cox’s Bazar, where a large number of Rohingya stateless people are concentrated, listened to sharing by Rohingyas themselves about their vulnerable situations. In the 1990s, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh in order to escape persecution in Myanmar.
The government of Bangladesh declared the Rohingyas illegal immigrants and placed them in refugee camps. Since the mass exodus two decades ago, about 28,000 Rohingyas still live in official camps in Bangladesh, with more than 200,000 living without support in nearby makeshift camps, according to UNHCR sources in Dhaka. These unregistered Rohingyas are denied official refugee status and are labelled as “illegal economic migrants”. They live without protection of the law and are restricted from formal education, reliable health care, and regular sources of food or income. Those Rohingyas who have remained in the Arakan state of Myanmar continue to face similar discriminations.
The second group of participants who visited the “Geneva camp” of Bihari stateless people (also known as stranded Pakistanis) in Mirpur, Dhaka city, could understand more about the plight of the Urdu speaking Muslim minority Biharis. About 200,000 Urdu speaking minorities who during Bangldesh’s civil war with Pakistan took the side of Pakistan, losing their homes, jobs and positions in society, were forced eventually to take up residence in more than 70 overcrowded camp settlements. Although, many of the Urdu speaking minority hoped to get the permission to move to Pakistan, but only a small percentage were admitted.
For almost 40 years, the camp residents were stateless, non citizens of Bangladesh or Pakistan. They were denied access to citizenship or government services, including education, formal employment, property ownership, and driver’s licenses. In 2008, a Supreme Court decision recognized their nationality rights. A large percentage of the adults were registered to vote in the 2009 election. After decades of isolation and discrimination, 94% of them are illiterate, almost double the national rate.
Despite being registered as voters by many of them, a large number of Urdu speakers still are unable to obtain proper documents, jobs, passports or compensation for their property confiscated during the war. Forty years after the independence of Bangladesh, the Urdu speaking minority people are still seeking restoration of justice. Several Biharis who had returned to Pakistan from the then East Pakistan when Bangladesh was born in 1971, still live in Pakistan without any right to nationality. They are not recognized as citizens and are denied all amenities of citizenship by Pakistan government.
The group which visited Nepal listened to and understood the situation of the stateless people in Nepal – especially the Bhutanese and the Tibetans who live in various camps. There are 56,366 Bhutanese and around 15,000 Tibetans live in Nepal as stateless. We also heard about the situations of other stateless people in Asia, such as the indigenous people in Northern Thailand, the ethnic Vietnamese and Laotians in Japan.
Nationality and citizenship: universal human rights
While listening to and analysing the international human rights protection mechanisms and existing legal instruments that define nationality and citizenship, we are convinced of the fact that citizenship based on nationality of an individual is a universal human right. There are substantial reasons for the international community to recognise that international law which records the nationality laws must be consistent with general principles of international law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 15 stipulates that nationality unequivocally within the framework of universal human rights. Over the past five decades, the right to nationality has been elaborated in two key international Conventions that have brought the concept of statelessness into the United Nations framework: the 1954 Convention relating to the status of stateless persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These Conventions created a framework for avoiding future statelessness, placing an obligation on states to eliminate and prevent statelessness in nationality laws and practices.
However, it is with dismay that we noticed that the state parties to these conventions are far less than the states adhered to other Conventions and international treaties. Several international legal instruments offer means of protecting the rights of stateless people, but many states failed to ratify and comply with the Conventions on statelessness.
Biblical and theological basis for our prophetic witness
We pondered on the question that why churches and Christian bodies be concerned about stateless people. The Bible itself bears witness to the stateless condition of the Hebrew people and God’s involvement to facilitate for them a homeland and therefore statehood. A popular Confession of Faith among the Hebrews was: “A wandering Aramean was my father: and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty and populous. And the Egyptian treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”(Deut. 26:5-9).
Not only the Israelites but other people and communities who experienced statelessness, were also the concern of God: “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Captor and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) is another reminder of God’s promise. God gave them all a homeland and thereby statehood.
All human beings, irrespective of their race are created in God’s image and should therefore be respected. Likewise stateless people and minority/ethnic groups are God’s creation. Therefore we are bound to see that justice is done to them. The word of God cautions the Hebrew people: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:21). Jesus through the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 also gives expression to God’s reign of justice, liberation, and well-being of all. His parable of the judgement of sheep and goats also draws pointed attention to being in solidarity with people who are discriminated, marginalized and suffering (which would include stateless people and minority groups): “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”(Matt.25:35-36).
These biblical and theological bases motivate us to express our Christian commitment and to be engaged in our prophetic witness to speak for the rights of voiceless and the marginalised stateless people who live in our midst.
We realised that the Church in each country that was represented in the Dhaka Consultation is numerically small. Since the issue of stateless people is a highly sensitive and political issue, it becomes rather difficult for the churches to take up this matter for advocacy at the governmental levels. This is mainly due to the fact that they could easily be branded as unpatriotic and are encouraging others for political dissension. It is also a matter of fact that the issue of stateless people has not yet received due attention in the churches.
Having heard the stories of the plight of stateless people in different contexts, we are reminded of our Christian call and witness to be in solidarity with the stateless people. We also underscore the need for churches to be sensitised on the problems of stateless people and the role of churches in advocacy on the basis of proper theological perspectives. It is important that churches should be encouraged to enter into alliances with like minded civil society organisations working for the human rights protection of the stateless people, especially to lobby with the governments to ratify the 1954 and 1961 United Nations Conventions on Statelessness.
We are convinced that it is utmost important that states should honour their human rights obligations to all those within the state’s territory, irrespective of nationality status. States should put in place with adequate mechanisms to protect stateless people from abuses. Our role as responsible Christians should be in our respective countries as well as at the global level to be engaged in facilitating wider understanding of the different forms and grave consequences of statelessness; enforcing existing human rights norms and legal measures to be followed up at the national and international levels to reduce statelessness; supporting wider advocacy actions in order to exert greater political pressure on states to acknowledge their responsibilities to protect the rights of individuals as citizens.
We urge the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia to take necessary follow-up actions to address the concerns of the stateless people in Asia, especially in emphasising the seriousness of the situation and the importance of advocacy for the stateless people at governmental levels as well as at the international levels highlighting the situations and emphasising the urgent need that due justice must be done.
In conclusion, we affirm that advocating the protection of the rights of the stateless people is our God-given commission. While this prophetic commitment is not an easy task in the prevailing political contexts in most countries, we believe that God being our source of strength, we are called to be engaged in this prophetic witness.