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Locked In And Locked Out : The Impact of Digital Identity Systems On Rohingya Populations
Anubhav Dutt Tiwari is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, Monash University (Australia), Jessica Field is a Lecturer, Jaivet Ealom is originally from Myanmar and José María Arraiza is a PhD based in based in Madrid.
The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) is the first and the only human rights NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at the global level. Its Mission is to promote inclusive societies by realising and protecting the right to a nationality.
The root causes of the depravations and marginalisation endured by the Rohingya community over multiple decades, are based on racist, discriminatory and xenophobic ideologies, laws and policies. While Myanmar is the source of these depravations, other countries have also failed to provide meaningful protection, status or rights to Rohingya, whether they fled to their country or were born there. In this context, a principled and sustained human rights framing of the challenges, which is rooted in the information, expertise and solutions put forward by Rohingya activists, and which challenges and shapes responses to the crisis by states, UN agencies, humanitarian actors and others, is much needed. This initiative aims to provide such a framing, through the production of briefing papers and other interventions on different human rights challenges.
This is the second paper to be produced under this initiative. The first paper, published in August 2020, looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Rohingya communities.
Introduction — Rohingya communities have been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality and persecuted in Myanmar, while also being denied adequate protection as refugees and stateless persons in neighbouring countries. At the centre of their insecurities and vulnerabilities, is a lack of legal status as citizens in Myanmar, and as residents, refugees and stateless persons elsewhere. For over 30 years, Rohingya in Myanmar have been subject to one of the world’s most oppressive registration and surveillance systems, the ultimate aim of which has been to exclude and persecute. In other countries, they have been left out of civil documentation procedures in order to deny them a legal status and thus avoid state responsibility. In more recent times, national personal identification systems are increasingly moving from the paper-based to digital; bringing opportunities to protect, but also potential to entrench exclusion, denial and persecution.
This Briefing Paper contextualises Rohingya human rights and protection concerns within the global trajectory towards legal identities for all and the increased digitisation of identification systems. The paper relates Rohingya experiences of registration systems to wider human rights challenges around racial and xenophobic discrimination,1 digital technologies and borders, as articulated in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Special Rapporteur on Racism’):
“Governments and non-state actors are developing and deploying emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous, and discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context. By so doing, they are subjecting refugees, migrants, stateless persons and others to human rights violations, and extracting large quantities of data from them on exploitative terms that strip these groups of fundamental human agency and dignity. TENDAYI ACHIUME
The central message of this paper is the urgent imperative to learn from the past and from other contexts, before it is too late. The lessons flowing from previous failures of the international community to protect the Rohingya, and the warning signs emerging from premature attempts to roll out digital ID elsewhere, without first ensuring that the right law and policy framework is in place, must be listened to. The political, economic, institutional and pragmatic reasons to downplay or dismiss such warnings can be immense, but the cost of doing so is likely to be greater still. The Rohingya have endured unthinkable atrocities over many decades, and the world owes it to them to at least now, put a premium on their safety, security, dignity and equality.
This paper is part of a wider collaboration on the human rights of Rohingya living in Myanmar and in refugee situations elsewhere. The paper recognises the need for Rohingyas to drive solutions for their own futures, and for international organisations and NGOs to be accountable to the Rohingya and to value Rohingya knowledge and analysis by placing it at the centre of projects and initiatives. As such it reflects and incorporates not just the experiences, but also the views, concerns and analyses of Rohingyas impacted by human rights issues.
This paper comprises five main parts. This Introduction, also provides below, an overview and background of the Rohingya and their legal status. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the concept of ‘legal identity’ and explores the drive towards greater digitisation of identity. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 look more closely at the prevailing situation related to digital identities and the Rohingya in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar respectively. These chapters also provide country specific recommendations. Finally, chapter 5 offers some general concluding reflections and recommendations.
Background: Rohingya and their Legal Status — Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic community from Rakhine State Myanmar, whose histories in Rakhine, by far pre-date modern nation states and borders. The arbitrary deprivation of nationality by Myanmar, which was initiated under military rule, is a key element in the decades-long persecution of Rohingya. Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya and their lack of protection as refugees outside Myanmar are strongly linked to Myanmar’s systematic production and perpetuation of Rohingya statelessness. The arbitrary deprivation of nationality and related systemic violations of numerous fundamental human rights, was part of a wider strategy aimed at “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Myanmar’s ethno-centric and exclusionary 1982 Citizenship Law, together with the arbitrary implementation of citizenship rules, provided a domestic framework that sanctioned discrimination, persecution and expulsion. Denial of citizenship – and importantly, the groups claim to citizenship by right – reinforced state narratives that Rohingyas were foreigners – ‘illegal immigrants’ – unworthy of state protection. This in turn, reinforced narratives which undermined the very identity of the Rohingya. Powerful voices dictated that ‘there is no ethnic group called Rohingya’ and ‘they are Bengali’, contributing to the stripping of identity, dignity and rights of the group.
Within the context of citizenship stripping and the denial of their ethnic identity, Rohingya have reported that since the 1970s, state authorities have systematically confiscated and cancelled identity documents and other evidence that could be used as proof of their (former) citizenship and inter-generational residency; while simultaneously maintaining detailed records of Rohingya in Myanmar that are used predominantly for surveillance and population control purposes. Abuses by state authorities relating to household registration have been reported across decades including extortion, arbitrary arrest and torture.
In 2015, Myanmar authorities cancelled the “white cards” or “Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs)” that Rohingya had held for twenty years, thus stripping them of voting rights ahead of the 2015 elections. Since then, Myanmar has attempted to roll out new ID cards to Rohingya in Rakhine State that identify the holders as non-citizens who require their nationality to be verified. These ID cards are known as National Verification Cards (NVCs). Whilst Myanmar insisted that the national verification process could lead to citizenship for some, many Rohingya resisted the implementation of this scheme on the basis that it erased their group identity and locked in a status of non-citizenship for the group. Within this context, attempts were made to pilot the collection of biometric data from some Rohingya in Rakhine, with a view to developing e-ID cards in future. Rohingya reported the increasing use of coercion and force by government officials and armed security forces in attempting to issue the NVCs. In 2016 and 2017, the forced issuance of the NVCs coincided with the waves of genocidal violence by security forces as part of their ‘security operations’ against Rohingya. This resulted in the expulsion of 725,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. ##