“We Have a State”: Confronting the Statelessness of the Rohingya People 

“We are not stateless. Stop calling us that,” Muhib Ullah, leader of the Rohingya civil society group Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, said before the UN Human Rights Council last month. “We have a state. It is Myanmar. So we want to go home to Myanmar with our rights, our citizenship, and international security on the ground.”  

Less than two years ago, the plight of the Rohingya minority reached international headlines with an ethnic cleansing campaign at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces that prompted more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. The roots of the crisis, however, can be traced back several decades. The Myanmar government’s refusal to offer the Rohingya citizenship has rendered them effectively stateless, denied basic rights and protections. In fact, they are the largest stateless population in the world. This statelessness is a key factor perpetuating the conflict in Myanmar to this day.  

The stateless status of the Rohingya leaves them easily susceptible to discrimination. Stateless persons typically cannot obtain legal documents, do not have access to education, healthcare, or employment, cannot participate in the political process, and do not enjoy freedom of movement.   

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which only offers a path to citizenship for members of one of 135 national ethnic races, excludes the Rohingya. This leaves the minority group with limited options in terms of citizenship status, freedom of movement, and access to livelihoods. Though other forms of citizenship are offered under the Citizenship Law, such as associate and naturalized status, a vast majority of Rohingya cannot even obtain partial citizenship due to stringent requirements to provide documents that have often been lost or confiscated.  

In recent years, the government of Myanmar has set up a National Verification Card (NVC) Process for citizenship but the Rohingya community does not consider it trustworthy. NVCs do not guarantee a significant change of rights or benefits. Even the Rohingya who have received NVCs continue to face extremely restricted movement. Additionally, Rohingya who have received some semblance of recognition in in the past, with temporary identification cards, have experienced the invalidation and revocation of their legal documents. As a result, the Rohingya people, understandably, have little faith in citizenship applications. 

Today, Myanmar’s laws leave the Rohingya in stateless status despite the fact that they can trace their family roots back generations. Previously some have enjoyed the right to citizenship and the right to vote and hold office. For these reasons, many Rohingya reject the being considered stateless. To them the fact that Myanmar is their state is clear.  

In order to address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis appropriately, statelessness in particular, we must create a solution-oriented response:  

  • Citizenship must be granted and restored to the Rohingya people.
  • The discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law must be amended to align with international human rights standards.  
  • Any verification process must be credible and transparent.  
  • The application process should be made simpler, with less stringent requirements on past documents that are likely to have been lost or confiscated.  
  • The details of the process should be clearly conveyed through widespread outreach campaigns.  
  • The Rohingya must be able to fully enjoy freedom of movement with or without an NVC as this will allow them the basic right to mobility that is made incredibly difficult to achieve when restricted to only those who have documentation.  

These recommendations are backed by the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was supported by the government of Myanmar, as well as the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar

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 refugees who have fled to other countries. Amending and reforming the citizenship process can not only improve the situation of the few hundred thousand still in Myanmar but also offer a path for all the refugees that hope to one day return safely home.     

Ana-Sofia Gonzalez served as a program intern at Refugees International in the spring of 2019.