No Home to Call Their Own

Dec 15, 2010
*Special to asia!
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There is no country for these men. Millions of them live among us, but on paper, their countries they do not exist. Meet eight groups of stateless people in Asia.

John Lennon once sang, “Imagine there's no countries.”
It's an appealing thought, this notion of a utopian world where there are no borders and territories to squabble and fight about.
Realistically though countries do exist. Each country accords its citizens – to varying degrees – an array of rights.

Among these rights are access to public services like education, medical care and housing, and protection by laws and legal processes. Citizenship also provides official documents of identification that allow bearers to seek employment legally and travel freely, among other things.

An estimated 12 million people around the world, however, have none of these. Many do not have a house or a country in which to hope to build a house.


Defining the stateless


159 A baby born stateless in Bangladesh. (Credit: UNHCR/ GMB Akash)

Unlike refugees who have fled their countries for one reason or another, stateless people have no country to call home. They have no legal identity, and this means they have no access to basic social services in the places they live.

The bulk of the world’s stateless people are in Asia.


1. Thailand

You may have seen them. You just didn't know they were stateless.

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, they wander through the main commercial areas in their colourful traditional costumes, selling handicrafts and trinkets to tourists. Trekkers might meet them in their distinct communities in the country's mountainous regions.

There are the Karens, whose women elongate their necks with brass rings.

The Akha women have their own particular headgear, adorned with silver.

Then there are the Hmongs, who fought alongside the CIA during the bombing of Laos, only to be forced to flee after the Communists won the Vietnam War.

An estimated 2 million hill tribespeople live in Thailand, mainly in the northern areas. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that as many as half of them do not have Thai citizenship.

The reasons for these are varied. Often they simply do not have birth certificates to prove that they were born in Thailand.


160 A young girl from the Karen hill tribe living in Thailand (Credit: Christine Zenino)


Without citizenship, they are not allowed to own land or to seek legal employment. Their children are also unable to register in state schools.

According to studies by the UN, lack of proof of citizenship is the “single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl or woman to be trafficked or otherwise exploited.”

Their vulnerability is made worse by Thailand being a popular sex tourism destination, and neighbouring Cambodia a hotspot for those looking to engage child prostitutes.

Where there is a demand, opportunists will always be on the lookout for an easy supply.

Apart from the hill tribespeople, the stateless in Thailand also include those who fled the conflict in surrounding countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Not all would have proof of citizenship in their countries of origin.

Scores have fled Myanmar, due to fighting and persecution of ethnic minorities. To contain the influx, camps were constructed along the border, each holding between 150,000 and 200,000 people. But another two million are squatting in areas outside these camps. Yet more vanish into the country's urban centres as an underclass of cheap labour.

For the children born to these refugees and other nationals, citizenship will not be given by Thailand. Neither will they receive it from the Myanmar government.

A new generation of stateless people is thus created.



2. The Rohingyas

It was a heinous act committed by the Thai military.

In December 2008, they detained some 1,000 Rohingyas. A few days later, they loaded them onto engineless boats and pushed them out to sea, with their hands tied behind their backs. The story only came to light when they were rescued.

More than half did not survive the ordeal.

More than half did not survive the ordeal. The dumping of the Rohingyas at sea was repeated the next month. Indonesian fisherman saved those who did not perish after being stranded at sea for three weeks. Some of these were left critically ill.

This is tragic tale of a people who had gone to Thailand to seek refuge from persecution back home. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority of some 700,000 who have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government.



Some 250,000 flooded into Bangladesh. Those that are recognised by Bangladesh as refugees are interned in camps. More than 90 percent however live as illegals outside these camps, or disappear into the cities.

Another 70,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have fled to Malaysia. Only 19,700 registered with the local UNHCR office have been recognised by the government as refugees.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi