Academics / Activists / Aid Workers / Researchers / The Sunday Times

Amal De Chickera: A Right to a Nationality

You are stateless – you can lay claim to no nationality, and no nation claims you.

You may have been born into anonymity as one of the persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar, your life encircled by fences of camps for the internally displaced, your only option to flee across the border to another refugee camp in Bangladesh. Perhaps your parents were Kurds, stripped of their nationality in Syria, or Roma in Eastern Europe rendered stateless in the messy dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps you are the child of a migrant worker on a palm oil plantation in Malaysia or were born to a Nepalese mother who, like mothers in more than 20 other countries, cannot legally bequeath their nationalities to their children. You could be in Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Kuwait, Thailand or any of a dozen other places. No one can be quite certain how many share your fate but it’s estimated that there are millions of stateless people. Fortunately, exact numbers aren’t a prerequisite for finding a solution – the goal is instead to eradicate statelessness in a decade.
In many ways, our understanding of the issue is still in its infancy, but among the 20 or so pre-eminent experts in the field is a Sri Lankan. Amal de Chickera co-founded the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion with Laura van Waas and Zahra Albarazi in 2014. With offices in London, it is the first global NGO dedicated to addressing statelessness. They made the announcement at the Global Forum on Statelessness in The Hague in September, and have since found funds to cover their early running costs through a crowd-funding campaign on the website Indiegogo. The institute’s stated goal is to help shape ‘an inter-disciplinary response to the injustice of statelessness and exclusion by serving as an expert, partner and catalyst for change.’

An international campaign, launched by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and promoted by its special envoy Angelina Jolie, is gunning for 10 million signatures in 10 years, and thanks to this concerted drive, a once unknown issue has suddenly found itself in the spotlight. Each signature will represent the 10 million people the UNHCR says are stateless. Denied a nationality and along with it a slew of basic rights including access to health care, the right to vote or even freedom of movement, theirs has been a life of tremendous hardship and almost complete alienation.

In a domino effect, life only gets harder for the stateless – if one does not have a birth certificate, one cannot apply for any form of identity card, cannot open a bank account, or own property, go to school or hold down a legal job or have a marriage registered. It is why, over his years in the field, Amal has come to believe that statelessness should be treated as a multi-disciplinary human rights issue and not a legal conundrum requiring only a technical solution.

It’s a cold December morning and Amal is a familiar face walking down a street in Central London. Our interview is a long one, held in multiple locations as we try to find a quiet spot – first in the café, then on a chilly park bench and finally in another café. “I didn’t know what statelessness was,” Amal says, remembering himself as a student of the Master of Laws (LLM) programme at the University College of London. Amal learned much of what he knows on the job at the Equal Rights Trust (ERT), where he is presently a senior consultant on statelessness.

Amal is an acknowledged expert on the subject and is credited for his research and authorship of notable publications including ERT’s ‘Unravelling Anomaly: Detention, Discrimination and the Protection Needs of Stateless Persons’ (2010) and ‘Guidelines to Protect Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention’ (2012). He is the manager of the Trust’s ongoing work on the human rights of stateless Rohingya and has conducted research in 12 countries. He is a co-founder and steering committee member of the influential European Network on Statelessness and an advisory committee member of the International Detention Coalition.

It’s a lot to pack into six years – he joined the ERT in 2008 – but in many ways they’re still very much at the early stages of solving what is, without doubt, a monumental challenge. “It’s a difficult issue to campaign on, there is no easy straightforward message,” says Amal. For instance, there are clear legal issues that need resolving – policies applied with prejudice by governments, loopholes in legal frameworks, communities that exist or have been forced outside the mainstream – but Amal’s understanding of the lingering consequences of statelessness evolved from when he made the connection to Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation population.

The island’s upcountry Tamils, immigrants transported by the British from South India to serve as labour on the tea plantations account for an estimated 5% of Sri Lanka’s population. Threats of repatriation, privatisation of the plantations, repeated financial negotiations, shifting government policies, ethnic violence and years of trade union action kept the issue in the headlines, yet as of 1996 an estimated 150,000 people in those areas were still without Sri Lankan citizenship. The situation was only rectified fully in 2003, when a bill was passed to grant citizenship to 168,141 stateless plantation Tamils by the Sri Lanka Parliament.

Stateless people are usually alienated from the democratic process, but campaigning by the trade unions contributed greatly in this case to having their voices heard. Few other marginalised groups have such vociferous champions. Despite their now improved political leverage, the plantation community still faces significant socio-political, economic, health and education challenges. Many continue to lead a precarious existence, not unlike that of their ancestors.

As a lawyer (he passed the Bar Examination at the Sri Lanka Law College at the very top of his batch), Amal says he was surprised by his own ignorance of the problem. “Here I was a Sri Lankan lawyer, who was in many ways very aware of the situation of the hill country Tamils, yet I had seen it as a human rights issue alone rather than a statelessness issue.” Now he thinks many of the former stem from the latter. “It does shed light on why the hill country Tamils were excluded in Sri Lanka’s nation building process – it was because they were considered neither Sri Lankan nor Indian, even though they were in the country they had lived in all their lives.”

It’s why ‘inclusion’ is given a place of prominence in the new institute’s agenda. “It shouldn’t be seen as the end of the road to resolve it legally, a lot needs to be done to address generations of exclusion,” says Amal, using as an example the barriers that have to be overcome by communities which have not had access to education for decades. “Substantive programmes to address historical inequalities are called for,” he says, emphasising, “we really need some kind of shift in the attitudes of people around, there needs to be acceptance and tolerance and recognition that they belong.”

It’s interesting to note that he brings to this vision a deep respect for the role the arts can play in mobilising public opinion, giving statelessness a human face and communicating some of the complexities of this issue. Amal, who was a founding member of the Sri Lankan Stages Theatre Group along with siblings Ruwanthie de Chickera, Gihan de Chickera and several others, says “I think a lot of NGOs view the arts in a very limited way and they see it was a good way to simplify issues and get a message out.”

Though he acknowledges the usefulness of this, Amal adds, “For me it’s about developing a social discourse around the issue…creating a medium through which people are allowed to engage…This allows for a focal point through which we can relate to each other, and is important if we are to find or forge a creative response to this issue.”

December marked an important milestone for the fledgling NGO, with the release of its first report. Amal shares his hope that it will become an annual flagship publication, with each year giving them an opportunity to focus on different aspects of statelessness and to promote alliances between diverse groups who must be committed to helping the stateless for this to work.

So much hinges on transforming and then mobilising societal attitudes. In their forward to the report, the team make a moving case for changing how we perceive people without nationalities. They have the right to be defined by more than what is missing in their lives, to be seen as complete human beings with personal commitments, professional ambitions, character, identity and in many cases a deep sense of belonging to a place and a people that transcends the absence of an ID card.

Amal and his team see the need to fight on behalf of these ‘unrecognised citizens’ – “They have a place in this world, a country of their own, but this country does not recognise them as its nationals. This must change, because everyone has the right to a nationality.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on December 21, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Saiful Huq Omi.

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