Global Policy Forum

Citizens of Nowhere

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By Seth Mydans

International Herald Tribune
April 1, 2007

Hidden in the back corners of the world is a scattered population of millions of nobodies, citizens of nowhere, forgotten or neglected by governments, ignored by census takers. Many of these stateless people are among the world's poorest; all are the most disenfranchised. Without citizenship, they often have no right to schooling, health care or property ownership. Nor may they vote, or travel outside their countries - even, in some cases, the towns - where they live.


They are stateless for many reasons - migration, refugee flight, racial or ethnic exclusion, the quirks of history - but taken together, these noncitizens, according to one report, "are among the most vulnerable segments of humanity."

Without the rights conferred by citizenship, they have few avenues for redressing abuses, and little access to resources that could help them build better lives. They have few advocates, because human rights groups tend to focus on the types of abuses they suffer - trafficking, exploitation, discrimination - rather than the root of their problems, their statelessness.

In their variety, they share the lack of a basic human need: a place to call home. About two million of them are in Thailand, mostly members of ethnic minority groups and hill tribes, perhaps the largest stateless population in the world. Many were born in remote areas along the border with Myanmar, out of touch with the government, and lack documents that could prove that they, or one of their parents, were born in Thailand.

"Everything is affected, all my rights," said Saidaeng Kaewtham, 38, who works as a gardener. "I can't travel, go to the hospital, do business or get an education. You can't choose your job, only labor." "Why can others do these basic things and I can't?" he asked. "If I had been a citizen I might have finished my education. I might have earned a master's degree already. Some of my friends have master's degrees."

The number of people like Saidaeng is rising today with the shifting populations of a globalized world, experts say. The emergence of new democracies is also a factor, particularly in Africa, where the granting or removal of citizenship is used as a political weapon. "The very fact that democracy makes people count makes citizenship a more important social and political fact, and that has given an incentive to some political leaders to use citizenship as a tool to disenfranchise opponents," said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

By the most common count, there are 15 million stateless people in the world, but by its nature, this is a number nobody can know for certain. "Statelessness is a global phenomenon, but each of the stories is different," said Philippe LeClerc, an expert on the issue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

The stateless include some 200,000 Urdu-speaking Bihari in scores of refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where they are barred from many government services and subject to harassment and discrimination. Formerly a prosperous, land-owning community, they were stranded in Bangladesh when it separated from Urdu-speaking Pakistan in 1971. Although Pakistan at first offered refuge to fleeing Bihari, neither nation offers citizenship today to those who stayed behind.

The stateless also include members of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from western Myanmar, where they have been stripped of citizenship and denied civil rights and face exploitation, forced labor and religious persecution. More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled in recent decades to Bangladesh, where they live in camps or on the streets.

They also include tens of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian children in the Malaysian state of Sabah, victims of discriminatory laws that, in effect, deny them birth certificates and often separate them from their families. Repression at home and the demand for cheap labor drew hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians to Sabah over the past three decades. There are now 750,000 of them, nearly one-third of the local population, and the authorities are forcing many to leave. Because their children often lack documentation, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 have been left behind to fend for themselves.

In Thailand, the government has embarked on an unusual and ambitious program to determine its stateless people's rights to citizenship, checking documents and interviewing witnesses and local elders. "You have hundreds of nationality decisions taking place every month in these provinces," said LeClerc. "It's going in slow motion, but it demonstrates a consciousness on the part of Thailand that they have to address the issue."

The only documentation Boon Phonma, 43, could offer was a birth date scribbled on a palm leaf by her mother. She said she was turned away by officials who said, "No, you're not Thai." Like some others without papers, she then presented officials with the results of a DNA test that she said was accepted as proof of her right to Thai citizenship. "I found out I have a whole big family here, 335 people," said Boon, who now works to help other stateless people. "I am a Thai confirmed, a Thai since birth."


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