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Helen Brunt

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Helen Brunt is the Senior Programme Officer with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. She has been working with and for people affected by forced migration, including refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people, for over a decade, her motivation arising from personal experiences in Malaysia with stateless people in Sabah and Rohingya refugees in Penang. She holds an MA in Anthropology of Development & Social Transformation from the University of Sussex and a BA in Southeast Asian Studies from SOAS, University of London. This contribution was written in the author’s personal capacity, and the views expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of APRRN.

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The stateless Rohingya

Helen Brunt

The Rohingya are an ethno-religious Muslim minority group originating from the Rakhine regioni which today is encompassed within the western part Myanmar (also known as Burma) and is adjacent to Bangladesh. There is an estimated population of between one and 1.5 million Rohingya in Rakhine State, with the majority living in camps as internally displaced people (IDPs). With at least 1.5 million people in the diaspora following waves of forced migration dating back to the 1970s, today more Rohingya live in exile outside of Myanmar than within its borders. 

In 1982 the Rohingya were arbitrarily stripped of their Burmese citizenship through the passing of a Citizenship Law and children born subsequently to Rohingya parents are also deprived of their right to a nationality. Ever since, the Rohingya population
in Myanmar has been continuously subjected to systematic, targeted persecution and discriminatory restrictions on their fundamental human rights including livelihoods, movement, education and healthcare. In recent years, over a million Rohingya men, women and children have fled from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh and then onwards to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. No country recognises the Rohingya as their citizens, rendering the vast majority as stateless and most Rohingya outside of Myanmar as stateless refugees. As displaced stateless people, they experience heightened vulnerability, greater difficulty in exercising their basic human rights, and have particular protection needs, in contrast to other non-stateless refugees or internally displaced people. Countless Rohingya are seeking asylum in countries which have not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Consequently, these ‘host’ countries have very weak or non-existent protection frameworks which results in the Rohingya being further deprived of their rights and freedoms.

The Rohingya are a clear example of a protracted and inter-generational statelessness situation with the vast majority of Rohingya without a recognised legal nationality status and, as such, unable to pass on a nationality to their children. There is a serious risk of further inter-generational statelessness for Rohingya children born in host countries where there is an absent or ineffective safeguard against statelessness for children born to stateless Rohingya refugees. Stateless Rohingya face both administrative and physical challenges accessing civil registration and documentation, such as registering births, marriages and deaths. Although not necessarily a prerequisite for acquisition of nationality, a birth certificate can provide the first legal identification of a person existing, and can be critical for the recognition by a country of a person’s tie to that country, and right to citizenship. Even when Rohingya children do have a birth certificate, they are frequently denied access to public education, with literacy and numeracy challenges compounding the Rohingya’s marginalisation from mainstream societies.  
Rohingya are habitually deprived of their liberty and freedom to move inside Myanmar, and are highly vulnerable to arbitrary arrest in countries of asylum (particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand). Further, detention of Rohingya can be for an indefinite period: their statelessness means that it is very difficult for authorities to return Rohingya to their country of origin, since Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens.

Affordable healthcare and social welfare is often unavailable for Rohingya in both Myanmar and most countries of asylum, due to their stateless condition. For example, Rohingya in Malaysia who are not recognised as refugees by UNHCR and do not hold any form of legal documentation, are sometimes denied vital diagnostic medical treatment as hospitals require all patients to have an identity number which must be entered into a registration system. Medical staff have been known to reject patients who lack documentation and therefore cannot fulfil this criteria, highlighting the nexus between statelessness/lack of legal identity and increased barriers to protection. 

In the face of abject human rights violations, the Rohingya are immensely resilient. Across the world, displaced Rohingya communities have mobilised to ensure that their children can receive informal education in the Rohingya language and culture, keeping alive their hope for a brighter future.

1 Also known as Arakan.