× Introduction~ World Stateless Children
Migration, forced displacement, and childhood statelessness~ Jyothi Kanics
The stateless Rohingya~ Helen Brunt
Accessing documents, preventing statelessness~ Monica Sanchez Bermudez
Syria’s displacement crisis, statelessness and children~ Zahra Albarazi
Stateless refugee children of Syria - interviews~ Thomas McGee
The long-overlooked mystery of refugee children’s nationality~ Gábor Gyulai
The open sky or a brick-and-mortar school? Statelessness, education and nomadic children~ Heather Alexander
Preventing statelessness of migrant children~ Alice Sironi and Michela Macchiavello
Birth registration problems in complex migration contexts – case studies from the Netherlands~ Laura Bosch
Risks of statelessness for children of undocumented parents in Europe~ Lilana Keith
Table of contents


Heather Alexander

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Heather Alexander, J.D., is a PhD candidate in law at Tilburg University. Her work is on the nationality and statelessness of nomadic and mobile peoples, focusing on case studies from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and West Africa. Heather's work explores the relationship between nationality law, territorial sovereignty and the settlement or removal of mobile peoples. She explores government use of nationality law and policy to eliminate nomadism, particularly in sensitive border regions with valuable natural resources. Heather has worked with refugees in various countries, and having worked as Associate Protection Officer with UNHCR.

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The open sky or a brick-and-mortar school? Statelessness, education and nomadic children

Heather Alexander

1. Introduction

In May 2016, the Indian newspaper Business Standard carried an article on the education of nomadic children in India. Lamenting the difficulties in providing a formal education to the children of “denotified, nomadic and semi- nomadic tribes”, the employee of a local NGO said; “the itinerant lifestyle isn’t suited for sending children to school...”. Nomadic children in India used to grow up immersed in the skills of nomadism: snake charming, juggling, ayurvedic healing, herding, hunting, storytelling and crafts.1 Today, nomadism is dying out, yet the children of ‘denotified tribes’ often cannot attend government schools to learn the skills they need to survive in a settled, urban environment because they lack birth certificates. As a result, many nomadic children in India find themselves without an education of any kind.

Nomads face a long history of discrimination in India. Previously labelled as “criminal tribes” by the government, today nomads have been ‘denotified’ as criminals, but often lack identification documents and cannot access their rights, including the right to an education. In many cases, this lack of documentation stretches back over multiple generations to before colonial independence. Many nomads and former nomads are ineligible for Caste Certificates which would enable them to access many forms of government assistance. Many lack any identity documents at all, including birth certificates. As a result, many children of ‘denotified tribes’ are unable to register for school.2

Their plight is similar to that of nomad children all over the world, who find nomadism increasingly unsustainable as a way of life, but are shut out of formal, government education. This is often because they are shut out of formal systems more generally, excluded from population registration exercises, left without documentation of their identity or proof of their nationality and even exposed to multi-generational statelessness. While the extent of statelessness among nomadic peoples is unknown, UNHCR has highlighted the link between nomadism and statelessness in its Global Action Plan. In my research, I have found evidence that many nomadic groups are either stateless or at risk of statelessness. This essay offers some reflections based on this work into the relationship between statelessness and education among nomadic communities.

2. Statelessness, assimilation, and education

All over the world, stateless children are unable to attend school because lack of documents prevents them from enrolling, but for nomad children, statelessness violates their right to an education in other ways. Without a nationality, nomads lack the ability to advocate for any say over the content and manner of their children’s education. In India, many nomadic livelihoods such as hunting, snake charming and street acrobatics are outlawed, meaning that it is illegal for nomad parents to both practice their traditional lifestyles and teach them to their children. Other nomadic livelihoods in India, like herding, are curtailed by grazing restrictions, fines, the introduction of agriculture and even, in some cases, the creation of national parks. Without a nationality, nomads cannot easily advocate for the decriminalisation and support of their livelihoods or for programs to assist them to pass nomadic skills on to their children.

Not only are nomadic families often unable to pass on nomadic skills to their children, governments often use formal schooling to assimilate nomad children, rather than support their right to culturally appropriate education. Even when states allow nomad children to attend school, statelessness prevents nomad com- munities from advocating, for example, for the inclusion of nomad languages, skills and culture in the curriculum. Even the very location and structure of many schools often means that nomad children must be settled to attend school. Without a nationality, nomad families have little say over the content or quality of the education of their children.

The right to an education is more than simply the right to attend school. Under international human rights law, nomadic children have the right not only to attend school, but to learn nomadic skills and history in their traditional languages. Nomadism itself is, arguably, a “traditional economic activity” protected under human rights law. Article 14 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous peoples, including indigenous nomads, have the right to “control their educational systems and institutions...in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”3 Under Article 20, they have the right to “engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.” The right to culturally appropriate education and the right to practice traditional economic activities are linked. Control over schooling is vital for nomads because, as the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs puts it, “(s)chool terms and daily schedules do not take into consideration indigenous peoples’ livelihood, for example, pastoralism and nomadism.” Indigenous rights place a duty on states to conform education policy to fit nomadism, and not the other way around.

But how are nomadic children and parents to exercise their educational and economic rights, including the right to learn nomadism, if they are stateless? The right to a nationality is vital because it provides nomads with the tools to promote nomadism and nomadic-friendly education. Not only is nationality a prerequisite in many countries for nomad children to register and attend school, it is vital for nomad parents to advocate on the content and manner of schooling by, for example, giving nomad families the power to vote, advocate with the government and, when necessary, sue in court. In Sweden, for example, the Sami people, long recognised as Swedish nationals, have their own Parliament which has pushed for the official recognition of the Sami language and a parallel system of schools. The Sami were able to take their issues with Swedish education to the Council of Europe, pushing for better legislation. For nomads, statelessness does more than simply violate the individual right of children to an education, it also prevents nomads from advocating for culturally appropriate schooling, for the ability to pass on vital skills, and for government support of their way of life more generally. Keeping nomadism alive in countries like Sweden requires constant citizen activism in the face of government hostility, activism that can only be undertaken by Swedish nationals with full access to their rights.

As Mark Manly and Laura van Waas have put it, statelessness impacts “the integrity of the modern nation-state system”, but it is also a product of that system and its assumptions and biases. Governments have usually been more occupied with the elimination of nomadism than with the enfranchisement and protection of nomads. This has been particularly true when it came to the ‘education’ of nomad children. In many countries, governments took nomadic children away from their parents and sent them to majority schools in order to promote settlement and assimilation. Statelessness, forced and coercive schooling, and the elimination of nomadism often went hand in hand, a legacy that has not been forgotten by many nomads.

3. Nomads, registration and ‘education’: a fraught history

In the past, the ‘right to an education’ for many nomad children meant being forcibly placed in schools and being kept from traditional activities like hunting. The trope of the illiterate beggar child justified the forced schooling of nomads in many countries, meaning that a generation grew up without any knowledge of nomadism. In Ireland in the 1970s, the “poverty and illiteracy” of traveller children was labelled a national disgrace and travellers were registered by the government, placed in housing projects and their children were sent to school, in part to be taught to live a settled life. The illiteracy of nomad children was often a driving force behind such programs, which were bitterly resisted by many nomads as unwanted assimilation. In Australia, Aboriginal children were forced to attend settlement schools, giving rise to the "Stolen Generations". Years of forced schooling by the Swedish government devastated Sami culture, a process Sami filmmaker Amanda Kernell calls "the colonization of the mind". Today, many nomads continue to have mixed feelings about government schooling. As a previously nomadic man in China recently explained to the US National Public Radio, “...he moved into town so that his children could get an education. Now, he says he’s moving out, in a sense, to continue their education.”  

Today, with the devastation of nomadism as a way of life, many nomad families see settlement and formal education as the only possibility left open to them. As one Moroccan Berber put it, “I’d feel bad about settling in a village, but I’d get over it.  I’m more scared of working in this life until I’m old.” Giving their children access to government schools is often an important factor in a nomadic family’s decision to settle. As a Moken father told The Guardian newspaper, “I wanted my children to go to school and have options.” Yet without a nationality, many nomads like the Moken lack the ability to advocate with their governments for culturally appropriate education, which means that sending their children to school often means abandoning nomadism. Even in Thailand, where education is guaranteed for all children, there is only one school where Moken culture is taught, and this school has not been recognised by the government. Statelessness prevents Moken communities from advocating with the government for more Moken schools, as well as for official recognition, meaning that Moken families must make a terrible choice between school and their way of life, a violation of the very principle of the right to an education.

4. Conclusion

Nationality is one of the most powerful tools nomads have to protect their way of life. It provides nomads with the power to not only access an education, but influence the content and manner of that education, helping nomads pass their culture and traditions to the next generation both in formal and informal settings. The vital benefits of nationality, including education and schooling, can and should be used to support an education for nomad children that promotes their way of life. Yet in the past, governments have used the education of nomad children as a tool of assimilation. The Sami people struggled for years to keep their traditions alive while their children attended state-run boarding schools designed, in part, to stamp out nomadism. Today, despite immense challenges, the Sami are using their political clout as nationals to reform Sami schooling, transforming it into a tool of cultural preservation. In Mongolia, nomads, local officials and UNICEF have successfully advocated for mobile schools to bring education to nomad children, instead of the other way around. Yet the historical link between education and assimilation means that many nomads view government schools with suspicion. As Narumon Hinshiranan from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand put it, "I don’t see education as an ’option’ (for nomads), I see it as integration into Thai society – so that they are essentially cut off from their roots".  

The education of nomadic children should never be used as a tool of assimilation, as this is a violation of human rights law and the very concept of the right to an education. The best practices demonstrated by Sweden and Mongolia have shown that education can be one of the most powerful tools to protecting and promoting the nomadic way of life, reinforcing and transmitting nomadic culture while also giving nomad children the opportunity to learn other skills if they choose. But culturally appropriate education for nomads will happen only if nomads have a say over curriculum and school policies, a level of empowerment that can only come with nationality. Without a nationality, many nomads will continue to struggle to control their destinies, including the education of their children, in a world where education for nomads is too often not a right, but is at best a handout, and at worse, a Trojan Horse.

1 Nomadic tribes in India have often been the subject of fascination for non-nomads, though today all forms of nomadism in India, which include peripatetic nomadism, pastoralism and hunting, are under threat. See for example John Lancaster, “India’s Nomads” February 2010 at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/02/nomads/lancaster-text.
2 More research is needed on the status of their denotified tribes in India.
3 While some nomads are not indigenous, it is frequently argued that the framework of indigenous rights, as well as minority rights such as highlighted by the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, should be extended to all nomads to the extent possible. See for example Jeremie Gilbert, “Nomadic Territories: A Human Rights Approach to Nomadic Peoples’ Land Rights” 7 Human Rights L. R. 681, 714 (2007)