Global Policy Forum

Over 100,000 'Stateless' People Offered Citizenship


By Haider Rizvi

OneWorld US
September 14, 2007

A forceful campaign launched by an international humanitarian organization is likely to bring a positive change in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in Bangladesh who are not protected by the laws of any government. Last week, the Bangladeshi government said it was willing to grant citizenship to a large section of the Bihari population that has been treated as a refugee community for about 36 years. The central government in Dhaka declared that those Biharis born after 1971 (when Bangladesh emerged as an independent state on the world map) will be eligible to become citizens and thus could enjoy the right to vote and other advantages of government representation.

Biharis, who are Urdu-speaking Muslims originally from the Indian state of Bihar, have been living in Bangladesh since 1947 when the British divided the subcontinent into secular India and Muslim Pakistan. However, they lost their legal status after Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) gained independence in 1971. Since then, most of them (estimated between 250,000 and 500,000) have been living on the fringes of Bangladeshi society, with no right to participate in the country's political decision-making bodies, because they had sided with the West Pakistan (today's Pakistan) military operation against the natives in 1970.

"We commend this decision," said a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Refugees International, an independent humanitarian organization that has been a leading advocate for actions by the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan to end human rights abuses of Biharis. The group, which is considered highly influential in shaping U.S. policy on refugees, sent its last mission to Bangladesh in February 2006, urging both the government and Bihari leaders to take timely action. Soon after that the U.S. government also started building pressure on Dhaka to take appropriate steps.

In pre-independence India, many among the Bihari Muslim minority not only moved to present-day Bangladesh, but also to the Pakistani province of Sindh. After the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, they were unwelcome in either country for a long time. In welcoming the Bangladeshi government's recent decision, Refugees International's Maureen Lynch said it is important that Pakistan and Bangladesh both work together to offer the possibility of resettlement. In a statement, she urged the Bangladesh authorities to undertake "a timely legal review of the matter" so that Bihari people could benefit from the recent decision on citizenship and voting rights. According to Refugees International, most Biharis in Bangladesh live in camp-like settlements, with no access to health care, education, or appropriate sanitation facilities.

UN refugee agency (UNHCR) officials who have visited Bangladesh have also made similar observations. "The refugees in the camps are living in a very deplorable situation," UNHCR representative Pia Prytz Phiri told reporters during her visit to Bangladesh in March. UNHCR has repeatedly urged the Bangladeshi government to let Biharis move and work freely in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which lays out a legal framework and certain rights for refugee populations.

But the problem of statelessness is not merely confined to Bangladesh. According to Refugees International's researchers, there are more than 11 million people in the world who have no country to call home. These include well-known entities such as Europe's Roma people, many Palestinians and Kurds, some ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union, the Bhutanese in Nepal, Muslim minorities in Burma and Sri Lanka, as well as well as the ethnic minorities of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

According to experts, causes of statelessness include, but are not limited to, political upheaval, racial and ethnic discrimination, differences in laws between countries, laws relating to marriage and birth registration, expulsion of a people from a territory, nationality based on descent, abandonment, and lack of means to register children. Currently, only 57 countries have signed on to the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless People and only 29 have endorsed the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

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