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Invisible immobilities: Statelessness in Southeast Asia

WILL JERNIGAN  |  19 APRIL 2019  |  ISSUE #3

Unlike physical barriers or fences, statelessness is an invisible structure of immobility, making it challenging to understand and confront. Picture by Siora Photography on Unsplash.

This article considers a form of immobility that is challenging to observe: statelessness. Though statelessness is less visible than physical infrastructures like walls, fences, or detention centres, as an individual legal status it can be just as immobilizing. The article focuses on statelessness in Southeast Asia, where rates are exceptionally high, demonstrating how the legal status creates barriers to both horizontal and vertical mobility, hindering both physical movement and social/personal/economic growth. It examines statelessness and its impacts through the case of the Rohingya while showing that, though they face the most extreme repression of any stateless group, they are by no means alone in their plight.


UNHCR estimates that, as of 2018, at least 10 million people worldwide are stateless, meaning, according to the 1954 Convention on Statelessness and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, they are ‘not recognized as a national by any state under the operation of its law’. Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, famously wrote that the stateless are denied ‘the right to have rights’, something she herself faced as a stateless refugee after fleeing Nazi Germany. Contemporary statelessness takes numerous forms in different contexts around the world, but, in most cases, it still entails a lack of access to basic services and human rights — healthcare, education, and occupational and political rights among them.


Furthermore, stateless people often do not have access to passports or other recognized forms of identification. This lack of documentation can make life—and movement—particularly challenging, as it makes ‘regular’ (i.e. documented and ‘legal’) international movement impossible. This forces stateless persons to cross international boundaries ‘irregularly’ (i.e. clandestinely or ‘illegally’) and often in far more dangerous ways than if they could pass through traditional checkpoints. Additionally, because statelessness is often characterized by an absence of documentation, it is invisible to the eye, making it harder to observe and to confront. Finally, statelessness produces both horizontal (i.e. spatial/geographic) immobility and vertical (social) immobility, which cyclically compound each other. The effects are particularly profound for stateless people living in international border regions, where crossing those borders may be crucial for livelihoods and to visit family and friends.


Rates of statelessness are exceptionally high in Southeast Asia, where an estimated 25-30% of the world’s stateless people live. Geographically, one trend that emerges is the significant presence of stateless peoples in border areas, particularly in Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. The Rohingya are the largest such example, living in the Rakhine state in northern Myanmar, along the border with Bangladesh. They have also justly garnered the most international attention in recent years. In Myanmar, citizenship is conferred on the basis of ethnicity and only granted to specific ‘national ethnic groups’ as decided by the Council of State (1982 Citizenship Law). In addition to the Bamar ethnic group, which makes up around two-thirds of the overall population, 135 ethnic groups are recognized as nationals by the state. The Rohingya are not one of these, despite having lived in the region for generations. Historical context is critical here. Control of the region changed hands often until 1785, when it became part of the Burmese Empire, which formed a contiguous border with British Bengal. Burma was captured by the British in 1826, and became part of the larger British India. The contemporary border with Bangladesh was only distinguished in 1937, when British Burma was separated from the rest of the Indian Empire. Thus, the modern state of Myanmar is drawn along colonial lines from the time of British imperial rule. This case, reflected in much of Southeast Asia, is of artificial borders shifting around stable populations, with those borders being drawn and reified by colonialist outsiders, all contributing to the current situation.


As the Rohingya are a largely Muslim group living in a predominantly Buddhist state, their position—as an ethnic minority group, a religious minority group, and a legally stateless group—triply compounds many of the challenges they face, particularly those related to mobility. Stateless status, which grants no political rights and places the Rohingya as outsiders and ‘others’ within their own country, has led to deeply entrenched discrimination. They are often portrayed by the government as ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh. Personally, I found that, in discussions with Burmese citizens while in Myanmar last year, the group itself was far more often referred to as Bengalis than as Rohingya or any other term. Newspaper articles ran with headlines focused on ‘rebel uprisings’ by ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’ in the Rakhine state, vastly understating state military aggressions and atrocities reported in other international papers. These terms and discourses were rehashed often in conversations over cups of afternoon tea. Religious associations were also heavily focused on, with Myanmar positioned as a Buddhist state next to the predominantly Muslim Bangladeshi state—’wouldn’t they feel more at home in Bangladesh, anyways?’ was a fairly common remark. Certainly not all people felt this way, but such feelings were expressed. Though anecdotal, I think these quips are illustrative of the way propaganda and tactics of ‘othering’ certain groups—prohibiting citizenship based on ethnicity and religion, in particular—can trickle down into public discourse.


Over the past few years, as reported far and wide, the stateless status of the Rohingya has also led to their forced displacement by Myanmar’s security forces. This has—alongside taking away their right to regular movement—also taken away their right to stay. At present, many are temporarily living in Bangladesh (as well as Thailand and Malaysia), having fled Myanmar and crossed the border irregularly. The Bangladeshi government is in ongoing talks to repatriate them to Myanmar, though a UN fact-finding mission has raised concerns it will only exacerbate already horrific conditions. Tens of thousands are dead or missing, and sexual violence, including mass gang rapes, has been reported, amounting to the UN mission calling for the prosecution of military leaders on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.


Moreover, the Rohingya are just one group among many who face immobility due to statelessness. Similar conditions exist for numerous groups of people in Myanmar and northern Thailand, including those who identify as Yao, Shan, Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lanu, and Akna. Statelessness is also a lived reality for large numbers of children in Sabah, Malaysia—36,000 estimated by the International Observatory on Statelessness—and for many historically nomadic people, such as the Sama-Bajau, who have long lived in the border waters between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. While these cases are particularly prevalent in Southeast Asia, they exist globally as well. Bronwen Manby highlights similar cases in Africa, including in Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Libya, and Swaziland, and groups such as black Mauritanians, Iraqi Faili Kurds, and Kuwaiti Bidoon also face statelessness based on their race, ethnicity, or religion. Though many of these cases are not as extreme as the case of the Rohingya and are not commonly featured in international headlines, they are nonetheless urgent issues with severe impacts on the day-to-day lives and mobilities of millions of people.


Statelessness is invisible, but it can have horrific consequences. It causes immobility, vertical and horizontal, and by doing so it reduces people’s capabilities, leaving them more vulnerable to precarious situations, without protection or access to services that fall under even the most basic of human rights. Further, statelessness is often a harbinger for far worse things—forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide included. By continuing to allow such conditions in the modern world, we are saying loud and clear, to millions of people worldwide, ‘unless you have citizenship in some existing and recognized state, you do not have the right to have rights.’

Will Jernigan.jpg
Will Jernigan

Will Jernigan is a current MSc. in Migration Studies student at the University of Oxford, working on issues at the intersections of citizenship, statelessness, and migration. After completing a B.A. degree in International Relations at the University of San Diego, he spent the past two years working in Seoul and in Hanoi, before moving to Oxford last autumn.

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