This essay is about how the politics of documentation impact the lives of stateless people, whose homes and sources of livelihood were eradicated in the homeland their ancestors lived in for decades and whose citizenship has been taken away or denied. Using evidence about the stateless Rohingya people, I will present how, historically, documentation and false narratives have been used against the Rohingya people in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), just as they are among many other stateless people in the world. I also want to examine the responses of the host country and the effects of these on the Rohingya’s lives. The lived experience of persecuted Rohingya ethnic minorities can be best understood through the lens of the politics of documentation, which shows how documentation is created and used against a group of people and how it affects their lives. While documentation is needed to establish the truth and restore the past, there is also a flip side to this in that documentation can also be created (Ahmed 2007) to demolish the history of an ethnic group, which is what we are seeing in the Rohingya’s experiences.
I am not only arguing here about the historical documents that were purposefully created by Burmese rulers to erase the Rohingya Muslim minority’s existence in Rakhine State but am also focusing on the insufficiency of documentation, which has resulted in the long-standing oppression and legal quandary of the Rohingya’s statelessness not being addressed. I also discuss social media’s pro- and anti-Rohingya narratives, which have followed this group’s mass exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
To begin with, it is important to highlight that the government of Bangladesh has not recognised the Rohingya as refugees because Bangladesh is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention or Statelessness Convention. However, at the same time, it is also important to ask: To what extent is ‘refugee’ terminology able to capture the predicament of stateless people when we fail to categorise forcefully displaced people as ‘refugees’ simply because their situation does not tick all the boxes?
Anthropologist Liisa H. Malkki raises a significant point in her popular ethnographic research, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (1995), which is relevant here. While Malkki explores the situation of Hutu exiles from Burundi and Rwanda she expresses her frustration by remarking, “It is striking how often the abundant literature claiming refugees as its object of study locates the ‘’problem’ not first in the political oppression or violence that produces the massive territorial displacements of people, but within the bodies and minds of people classified as refugees” (Malkki 1995:8).The concept of a ‘refugee’ is a recent phenomenon in the context of world history and emerged from a specific global situation at the end of the First World War. This does not imply that there were no refugees before this time: people have always sought refuge. After the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires collapsed, the new peace treaties based on the nation-state model brought an intense change in Central Europe that led to thousands of Russians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians leaving their countries of origin. A few years later, another two major developments occurred – the enactment of the Nuremberg Race Laws in Germany and the Spanish Civil War – causing another wave of refugees (Agamben 1993 [translated edition 2000]). Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes because they did not fulfil the criteria of the nationalist principle of ‘one state, one culture’ (Gellner 2008) and thus could not be accommodated within European national state borders.
Malkki (1990) notes that towards the end of World War One, refugee camps became a standardised and generalised technology of power organised by the host nations. Through the whole process of organising mass displacement, Malkki argues, the ‘post-war refugee emerged as a knowable, nameable figure and as an object of social-scientific knowledge’. The documentation and naming of this group of people was critical to combatting the ‘refugee problem’. The host nations also increasingly anticipated that the masses of people uprooted during the war could become a big problem upon victory. Many charitable agencies, such as the Red Cross, started to work on how to address this refugee problem. However, refugees were still thought to be primarily the responsibility of the military, who modelled refugee camps after military barracks.
In 1951 when the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was established, refugees began to be viewed as an international social or humanitarian problem. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as was the Genocide Convention, where refugee law became an inseparable part of human rights. The principal elements of this law and its related legal instruments evolved in the aftermath of the war in Europe, which held a strong sense of post-war shame and responsibility for the predicament of people who had been forced to flee from their own country. One of the essential components of refugee law is the idea of a legal definition of refugee status. By giving a definition of refugee status, the refugee becomes ‘visible’. However, as a consequence of this categorical visibility, millions of displaced people are left undocumented as refugees because, in fact, their official documents do not describe their predicament as being that of a ‘refugee’.
Grahl-Madsen (1966) provides a helpful summary of the many sources that list and analyse the principal legal definitions of refugees, and notes some terms used to define ‘refugee’, such as ‘stateless person’ or ‘displaced person’. Among the descriptions of refugees given by states that offer asylum, international agencies, policymakers, or even within academic studies, there is a tendency to consider refugees a ‘problem’, a political, historical, or psychological problem that is caused by displacement distress. ‘Refugeeness’ is also seen as a mobile, unstable social phenomenon, which contributes to the characterisation of refugees. At the same time, this definition can become essentialised, much in the same way as ‘tribe’ was in classical anthropology. Along this line of argument, the researcher tends to attribute certain general characteristics to descriptions of stateless people without highlighting the causes for and history of their forceful displacement. This eventually leaves them ‘undocumented’ as they do not share a common experience and legal status. For example, according to Bhatia et al. (2018) in their study of Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, in conducting a rapid needs assessment of recently-arrived Rohingya in 2017, found that Rohingyas are often denied formal refugee status, cannot access full legal protections, are insecure and unsure about their future, and are unable to seek work or send their children to formal schools.
The Rohingya people have been rendered stateless in a context of discrimination. They have experienced citizenship denial, exclusion, and extermination based on their ‘rootedness’. By enforcing the state narrative that they are ‘foreigners’ and ‘Bengalis’ rather than Burmese, the Rohingya people have been systematically removed from any official documentation that could prove their citizenship. The Muslim Rohingya minority have been suffering from economic discrimination, targeted harassment, and persecution for decades. These anxieties were created out of Myanmar’s long-lasting tension between central and peripheral ethnic clashes, which has continued under successive regimes. Under the rule of the Burma Socialist Party (1962–88), certain policies provoked conflict because they were based on ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic assimilation. The ultimate result was an increasing exodus, largely taking place in 1978 and 1991–92. Before then, Rohingyas started to flee to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. More than 1 million Rohingya refugees took shelter in the largest refugee camps in history after the massive Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in 2017.
Dina Siddiqi (2019) suggests that the denationalisation of the Rohingyas is not particularly a Burmese problem but is an extreme version of the postcolonial predicament of nation-states in the present time. She adds that despite the restoration of formally democratic politics, Myanmar did not take any initiative to change the existing discriminatory and violent policies that led to the Rohingya’s suffering. She identifies how the problematic idea of ethnic or racial purity lies in imagining and unifying the national community and constructing a minority of ‘others’. Thereby, Siddiqi understands the Rohingya genocide as an extreme outcome of the imperative of exclusion that is at the heart of all nation-making processes.. In the context of discovering the Rohingya’s ‘authentic’ history, she argues that it is problematic to tie citizenship to ethnicity or indigeneity.
Within the host country – in this case, Bangladesh – displaced Rohingya people receive food, necessities, and shelter. Still, they do not have the assurance of formal education for their children, freedom of movement, or freedom of choosing healthcare. In addition, they have experienced mistrust and dissatisfaction with health services (Islam and Mookherjee 2022), and with public institutions following several fires, gunfights, abductions, killings, and instances of hate speech by their host community. They also have obstacles when it comes to information sharing due to an internet shutdown by the Bangladesh Government in September 2019. (www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/26/bangladesh-internet-ban-risks-rohingya-lives#:~:text=Internet%20access%20in%20the%20camps,the%20Bangladesh%20Telecommunication%20Regulatory%20Commission) They have also experienced various other forms of violence and relocations to Bhashan Char that have hugely burdened their lives in their refugee camps. After three years of living in camps, the Rohingya community has become deeply concerned about their children’s future and education. Restrictions were already in place in Myanmar before they fled. Now, despite being provided with developmental and humanitarian assistance in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, the predicament of the Rohingyas persists.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted refugee camps in the southern part of Bangladesh, such as the one in Ukhiya Upazila, Cox’s Bazar, in many ways because of the reduced services provided by national and international NGOs during lockdowns. The armed attacks (2021–22) between Rohingya groups in the refugee camp, coupled with the threatening presence of ARSA, raise important questions about the refugee camp’s safety. Despite the presence of vital law-enforcement agencies, grave concerns have been raised about the supply of weapons inside the centre, and this type of situation puts many Rohingya lives in danger. The degradation of law and order during the pandemic has been a major issue in general for Rohingya in Bangladesh.
However, the violation of Rohingya people’s human rights in the camps was not solely a consequence of the pandemic. Instead, the violation of human rights has been occurring in lives of the Rohingya for many years, both in Myanmar and in the camps. These mega camps have become severely overcrowded. The average usable space per person in the camps is 10.7 square metres per person, whereas the recommended international standard for usable space per person in refugee camps is 45 square metres per person. Densely packed refugees are at a heightened risk of being affected by communicable diseases, fires, community tensions, and domestic and sexual violence (www.hrw.org/report/2018/08/05/bangladesh-not-my-country/plight-rohingya-refugees-myanmar).
Simultaneously, Rohingya are being denied citizenship for not having ‘ethnic roots’ in Myanmar and are, also, being denied freedom of movement and a right to education in order to prevent them from becoming ‘rooted’ and being able to assimilate. The issue of rootedness has a significance in the context of displaced lives. This is connected to stigmatised representations in host countries. Since the discussion of culture and its various parts and components is territorialised, the ‘uprooted refugees’ are seen as being “torn loose from their culture” (Marrus 1985: 8). This is, essentially, related to problematic notions of nationality and identity. Simone Weil commented in the context of wartime England in 1942: ”To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul” (1987: 41). Following this line of argumentation, roots are essential not only for the soul but also for identity and forms of territorialisation. The metaphorical concept of having roots involves the intimate linkage between people and place. Rootedness is not only implied by nationality but is also strongly related to defining people’s moral position. After the Second World War and during the interwar period, the loss of national homeland embodied by refugees was often defined by policymakers and scholars at the time as a politico-moral problem. For example, a 1939 historical survey of refugees states: ‘Politically uprooted, he (the refugee) may sink into the underworld of terrorism and political crime; and in case he is suspected of political irresponsibility that endangers national security’ (Simpson 1939: 9). This attitude is also reflected in a post-war study where it was stated that: ‘Homelessness is a serious threat to moral behaviour’. What we need to understand here is that refugees, who had lost their physical connection to their national homeland, came to be treated as having lost their moral bearings. Their rootlessness meant that in their lives, “they were no longer trustworthy as ‘honest citizens’” (Simpson 1939). These ‘uprooted’ people are also seen as a threat to any nation, since the modern nation has its own order of things that appears fixed and natural (Bowmen 1993). The state is unwilling to accept refugees as it has its own boundaries and ‘naturalised order of things’. In this example, the host community (Bangladesh) often condemns Rohingya refugees for decreasing wages, for a lack of employment, and for increasing the price of local goods, as they allegedly sell relief items in local markets. Rohingya are also accused of increasing the crime rate, which has led to media in Bangladesh promoting negative stereotypes and an anti-Rohingya attitude. This is reflected in media portrayals of Rohingya as Yaba (a type of drug) traffickers, criminals, and arms traffickers.
The relocation of stateless Rohingyas to the island of Bhashan Char as a form of confinement has been yet another aspect of the uprooting of the Rohingya’s lives. Despite the ‘safe, secured and well-arranged shelter, food supplies, health services and aid’ that the island supposedly has, the use of this island sparks debate because of its location, which is in the path of cyclones and detached from the mainland. This new living arrangement further limits the opportunity for Rohingya to meet with friends and family in the Cox’s Bazar camps, and the Rohingyas’ lives have become more captive under surveillance.
The first step in addressing the violation of the Rohingya refugees’ human rights is official documentation of the unjust actions taken by the Myanmar Government against the Rohingya people, which made them flee from their homeland in the first place. At the centre of Rohingyas’ insecurities is their lack of citizenship status, which causes them to have limited human rights, the denial of refugee status to them, their lack of formal education, and their stigmatised identity in their host country.
The undocumented Rohingya in Myanmar and in Bangladesh are a recent manifestation of forced displacement and of a loss of existence in the politics of documentation and in the state’s order of things. By using the power of documentation, the state and its apparatus have slowly and consciously erased the Rohingya people’s existence. Despite being undocumented in Myanmar, the Rohingya people’s claims to citizenship cannot be erased. Rohingyas are not only looking for a homeland to return to, they are also looking for security and an acknowledgement of their existence.
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 ARSA is a Rohingya insurgent group active in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, where Muslim Rohingya people have faced persecution.