Statelessness remains at the heart of the Rohingya crisis. The failure to effectively address this root cause has affected not only Rohingya in Myanmar but more than 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled to other countries.
This week, in a stifling hot room in Malaysia filled with more than 50 Rohingya refugees, my own work with the community came full circle. I was sitting among dozens of people who had fled the very same displacement camps in Sittwe, Myanmar that I had visited twice before in 2012 and 2014. When I arrived in September 2012, Rohingya were still entering the camps and there was almost no clean water, food, or shelter. People were literally starving. It was the worst situation I had ever witnessed.
Earlier this year, the world watched in both horror and sadness as thousands of desperate Rohingya who had fled persecution in Myanmar were abandoned on boats without food or water. As countless numbers died of dehydration and starvation each day, neighboring countries quarreled over who should take them in and how limited their assistance would be. Finally, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept up to 7,000 Rohingya, but only on the condition that they would be resettled out of their countries within a year.
The Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti share many things—a background of slavery, oppression, dictators, and the island of Hispaniola. Yet, in the DR, a history of racism and prejudice runs deep toward their Haitian neighbors who were often recruited for undesirable work in the DR’s sugarcane fields. In 1932, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo massacred over 10,000 Haitian sugarcane workers in an attempt to ‘whiten’ the country. Still, Dominicans of Haitian descent have long roots in the DR, and contribute to the economy and society alongside their fellow citizens. But because registration and certification of births were often done on an arbitrary basis, proof of birth in the country has been difficult to verify.
Without official proof of a Syrian father, exiled Syrian children are at a heightened risk of statelessness, which could make their ability to access education, health care and social services less likely, and could prove a barrier to returning and taking up Syrian citizenship, if and when the possibility arises.
“We must not forget the millions of stateless people whose dreams of nationality will never come to fruition. They also need our help to enjoy basic human rights right now,” remarked UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in 2007. Yet the international community often highly overlooks statelessness and the adverse implications of such status. While many individuals tend to take the legal acquisition of a nationality for granted, the acquirement of nationality can heavily dictate the quality of life for an individual.
Imagine that your own birth was never officially recorded. Your family members and friends would know you, and know that you exist. You might receive services from local organizations, like the church or the fire department. But what would happen when it’s time to enroll in school, get a job, or apply for a driver’s license? Now imagine all of this is happening to you in a foreign country. You fled your home because of war. But when it’s time to return home with the rest of your family, how could you prove that you belong there? How could you convince anyone that you, too, had rights in the country that you consider home?
About two years ago I secretly met with a dozen stateless Rohingya refugees in a hotel room in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They were new arrivals from Rakhine State in Myanmar and had waded through shallow areas of the Naf River on the Bay of Bengal to escape violence and persecution. We met clandestinely because they were afraid that if they were identified as Rohingya, they would be arrested, detained, and sent back to Myanmar. Newspapers worldwide were reporting the expulsion of large numbers of Rohingya, and the refugees knew of others who had been spotted and deported.
It’s been five years now since Refugees International first visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to better understand and then call for solutions on behalf of the country’s stateless population – the bidoon. Since mid-2008 there have been a number of media reports indicating that change was afoot, and that efforts were being made to tackle statelessness through a one-time only special registration process. So, when the possibility popped up of visiting the country last summer, we took it.