The United Nations (U.N.) refugee agency said on Wednesday it was holding talks with India about its citizenship register in the border state of Assam, amid concerns that many people, the majority of them Muslims, could join the ranks of the world’s stateless.
Nearly 2 million people were left off a list of citizens released by Indian authorities on Aug. 31 in the northeastern state of Assam, after a mammoth years-long exercise to curb illegal immigration from neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Those excluded had 120 days to prove their citizenship at regional quasi-judicial bodies known as foreigners’ tribunals. If ruled to be illegal immigrants there, they can then appeal to higher courts.
“We have expressed concern that this exercise of verification of nationality may result in statelessness for some of the people,” Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said at a news conference.
“The government of India has assured us that there is due process being put in place for these people to make recourse if their initial response was negative in terms of nationality,” he said. “We need to see what happens at the end of this process and whether there will be people still exposed to statelessness. That’s a concern that we have at the moment.”
The UNHCR is midway through a 10-year campaign to reduce statelessness worldwide, estimated by the agency in 2014 to affect 10 million people. Since then, some people in Kenya and Thailand, as well as Syrian refugees born in Jordan, have gained citizenship, Grandi said.
The agency announced on Wednesday that Kyrgyz human rights lawyer Azizbek Ashurov had won its prestigious annual Nansen Refugee Award for helping more than 10,000 people to gain Kyrgyz nationality after becoming stateless when the Soviet Union broke up.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in Central Asia became stateless – many in Kyrgyzstan. In my country, people had no proof of their identity, no papers. They could not go to school, get medical care, marry, own a house, open a bank account or vote. Registering a birth or even a death was impossible,” Ashurov said.
“They lived like phantoms among us, officially they did not exist,” he said.
More than 730,000 Rohingya are a mostly stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, who fled the country after a military crackdown in August 2017 which the U.N. has said showed “genocidal intent.” They now live in camps in Bangladesh, awaiting return to the northwestern Rakhine state from which they had fled.
“The biggest issue in numeric terms, also in terms of gravity of the (stateless) phenomenon, is certainly the Rohingyas in Myanmar,” Grandi said.