Statelessness in the Asia-Pacific Region

Photo by Leif Kennedy.

Photo by Leif Kennedy.


Home to 1.4 Million Stateless People

UNHCR estimates that 1.4 million people—40% of the global stateless population—live in the Asia-Pacific region, making it the largest and fastest-growing contributing region to the global statelessness crisis. In Southeast and South Asia in particular, racial, religious, and gender-based discrimination have resulted in the revocation or withholding of citizenship from increasingly oppressed minority groups, and particularly Muslims.

Among these, perhaps no group is better known than the Rohingya, who have suffered decades of ethno-religious discrimination and growing intercommunal tensions in their homeland of Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. The gradual erosion of countless fundamental human rights wrought by targeted State and local policies and practices—such as restrictions on education and employment, the number of children a Rohingya couple may have (no more than two), the materials Rohingyas may use to construct their homes (with brick being considered too “permanent”), and even on travel to neighboring villages and townships (making trade and post-primary education virtually impossible)—has led the UN to dub the Rohingya “the most persecuted group in the world.”

The Rohingyas’ persecution, dubbed by others a “slow-burning genocide,” culminated most recently in a brutal government crackdown in 2017 that killed over 10,000 men, women, and children, and forced nearly 800,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, where virtually all remain today. Indeed, the Kutapalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh has become the largest in the world, offering fragile sanctuary in dire conditions to over one million Rohingyas, nearly two-thirds of whom are children. And while the global Rohingya population is estimated at over two million, at present only 600,000 remain in Myanmar, where many lead even harsher lives in IDP (internally displaced persons) settlements that call to mind concentration camps, and where they continue to face persecution both at the hands of the military government and amidst widespread Buddhist-nationalist fervor.

Rohingya refugees and Muslims in other Asian nations face similar challenges, such as in India, where Hindu-nationalist populism has swept the country and led to calls for the ousting—and even death—of the estimated 40,000 Rohingyas living in settlements there. Meanwhile, groups like the Uighur of Central Asia, considered a “stateless nation,” also face near-universal persecution on account of their faith, particularly at the hands of the Chinese government. Like Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State, China tightly controls access to the Uighurs’ homeland of Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Uighurs have been herded into so-called “reeducation camps” and children are separated from their families to be raised by the State. In both cases, Uighurs are prevented from speaking in their native tongue and indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda, whilst reports of State crimes like organ harvesting are rife.

Elsewhere in Central Asia (as well as Europe), the dissolution of the Soviet Union left over 280 million people without a country to call home. Though most have since obtained a nationality, statelessness remains a serious issue particularly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where nearly 120,000 remain stateless. In other nations, such as Malaysia, Nepal, and Brunei Darussalam, discriminatory gender-based nationality laws barring women from passing on their citizenship has left roughly 40,000 children without a nationality.

For more information on statelessness in the Asia-Pacific Region, please see resources provided by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI), the Statelessness Network Asia-Pacific (SNAP), and UNHCR.