The NRC exercise in Assam has just sent more children to the abyss of desolation, making them unwelcome in their own homes, neighbourhoods and schools
Perhaps, they didn’t make headlines because they are children of a lesser God. On the trail of humanitarian woes lying by the roadside as people trudge and toil to prove they are worthy of being citizens first, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has orphaned a generation. Stories emerge every day of children who have not made it to the list, sometimes because of a lack of documentation, sometimes arbitrarily, at other times inexplicably as their parents and blood relatives have made the cut. And in the blunderland of a human misadventure of recognising who is alien and who is our own, countless have been torn apart through generations, left floating in a sea of vulnerability. Suddenly, these children are not Indians, they are stateless. And life as they knew it is going to be nothing like it anymore. Worst, they have become unwelcome intruders in their own homes, neighbourhood and schools. Illegitimate children of destiny, condemned for daring to exist and hated like wild grass for making humanity uncomfortable. This is the burden they will inherit in their minds.
When we talk of identity politics, seldom do we rationalise its practical impact and damaging potential. Have we spared a thought for the infant born on our soil, whose parents may not have been privileged enough to document his/her birth? What of the girl born in a detention camp? What of the boy who is a football champ but doesn’t have privileged parents to pursue the battle for identity till the end? What of the single child abandoned by parents in a camp or traded away to peddlers, simply because they are lucky to keep the siblings and can do without the attendant liability of fighting for one? What about students who risk being derostered from a formal schooling system and benefits that come with it? Without identity, they cannot claim scholarships, without papers, they cannot sign up for health check-ups and usual entitlements and without citizenship, their talent would never be owned as a building block of this country. Nobody would want them because they are stateless.
If the United Nations data, which has conducted the most exhaustive surveys on children in conflict, is anything to go by then an estimated 50 per cent of stateless people in the world today are under the age of 18. Although the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (which every nation except the US has ratified) asserts that all children should be guaranteed a nationality, roughly 70,000 children are born into statelessness each year. The consequences are for all to see. One may have heaved with emotion, seeing pictures of the El Salvadorean and the Syrian refugee boys who washed up dead, but perhaps what is not known is how the survivors become soft and easy targets of human rights abuses and are trafficked for sex, drug, fidayeen and the gun-running trades. Some are easy fodder for conflict zones. For some, statelessness equals a birth that better not happen.
A report by the Child Rights International Network has found that stateless mothers “may not receive proper prenatal medical care and stateless infants may not receive necessary immunisations. Unless stateless children obtain a nationality, accessing appropriate medical treatment can become a life-long struggle. As a result, stateless populations suffer high mortality rates and their overall health outcomes are generally worse than those of non-stateless groups. Poor overall health among the stateless is further exacerbated by a lack of educational access. Many stateless children are denied the right to education because they do not have the documentation required for school enrollment. In turn, without a basic primary education, it becomes much harder for stateless populations to advocate for themselves. Hence, depriving stateless children of education can further perpetuate statelessness and the human rights violations that accompany it.”
Of course, the lengthened review process (120 days for appeal and then review), to be followed up by judicial redress (going through the rigmarole of lower to the higher court) cannot guarantee inclusion. And since the Government has promised that even if it does identify illegal migrants, they would not be deported to Bangladesh or be exactly stateless, they would end up being a confused sub-category of demography.
Assuming that they would be confined to a ghettoised quarter, with perhaps work permits, some access to welfarist doles and no voting rights, imagine children growing up sequestered and with a much abhorred tag. Robbed of childhood, plucked out of normal processes of growing up, denied the right to express themselves, their natural abilities stunted and made to feel “alien” and “outcasts,” they could grow up depressed and lost, consigned to a sense of imposed worthlessness, or escape it with twisted ideas of bravado and rebellion.
Everybody knows that the reconciliation process is quite the chimera in the Assam NRC. For starters, most of those left out are marginalised anyway, without economic, legal or political resources. The poor have trouble gathering scraps of paper beyond their Aadhaar or voting card and can never afford the fees required for a review, let alone stake their desperation on “legacy cartels” that promise key documents. Going by earlier judgements of foreigners’ tribunals, about 80 per cent applicants have lost their cases. Most of them are Muslims, raising questions about ethnic bias in proceedings.
A decorated Indian Army veteran, Mohammed Sanaullah, spent 11 days in a detention camp in June after being declared a “foreigner.” National award winners and even crusaders against the influx of Bangladeshi migrants have been left out from a process that is hardly transparent or accountable. When innocence is looked upon as an enemy, and it is toughened by the experience of maladies and neglect, that alienation would breed dissent and then demolishers of the very system that they could have embraced. Assam is already a trafficking hub of the country, accounting for 22 per cent of the total reported cases across India, according to the last National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. The State also has the highest number of child trafficking (1,317) cases, which account for 38 per cent of the national count. These figures have clearly gone up given recent crackdowns as young girls continue to go missing. Induced migration, either because of natural disasters like flooding or political violence, have anyway displaced children. The NRC has just sent more to the abyss of desolation.
What then is the way forward? Some countries like Thailand have evolved strategies based on experience. As a recipient of children refugees, some of whom cannot even be grouped into age categories in the absence of papers, it has seen their lives bartered away as bonded labour, runners, couriers and sex workers and most worryingly, as psychologically damaged and deviant pre-adults. It, therefore, decided to confer a sense of belonging to the next generation and has conferred Thai nationality to over 27,000 formerly stateless kids since 2012. Up to 80,000 more could acquire Thai nationality by 2024.
The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda seeks to eliminate childhood statelessness through “achieving legal identity for all through birth registration” in the country where the baby is born. In 2014, the UNHCR launched the #IBelongCampaign to raise public awareness of childhood statelessness and pressure states into taking workable correctives. The global awareness is trickling in feebly in hypernationalist times, majoritarian assertion and nativist politics, with nine nations relooking and revising statelessness protocols and about six States streamlining the processes for naturalising kids. It is to culminate in a more focussed policy template this October.
Other ideas being toyed about include granting citizenship of a mother’s host country to children in case of single women on an equal basis as fathers, allowing the tender age group of children access to preventive medical protocols, eliminating laws and practices that deny children nationality because of their ethnicity, race or religion and ensuring universal birth registration. But with migration levels expected to remain high in Europe, too, we cannot end childhood statelessness by 2024 without the greater and combined political will of all nations concerned. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said, “In the short time that children get to be children, statelessness can set in stone grave problems that will haunt them throughout their childhood and sentence them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair. None of our children should be stateless. All children should belong.”
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)