by Natalie Brinham

Women train to be tailors at a UN Women-supported Action Aid Women Friendly Space in Balukhali Rohingya Refugee camp February 1, 2018 in Chittagong district, Bangladesh. Source: UN Women/Allison Joyce, Flickr.

Rohingya oral histories tell of how their statelessness in Myanmar has been produced slowly over the past forty years. Rohingya were not stripped of their citizenship by the 1982 Citizenship law alone. Multiple mass state-directed expulsions to Bangladesh since 1978 physically removed Rohingya from their country and their legal status diminished on return. State practices relating to registration and documentation since 1978 have also played a significant part. Such practices include the confiscation, destruction, nullification and targeted non-issuance of identity documents. Registration processes have become increasingly repressive, coercive and abusive since the mid-1990s, making survival for Rohingya in Myanmar more and more difficult. This bureaucratic cleansing has produced a steady stream of people out of the country since the 1990s. The recent registration process for national verification has met with resistance from Rohingya communities, resulting in harsh restrictions and state violence. In Rohingya narratives, enforced registration sometimes morphed into the genocidal violence of 2016–7 that physically destroyed their communities.

Successive military-led governments in Myanmar take centre stage in Rohingya histories of their documents. From the side-lines or behind-the-scenes, international and UN agencies are also involved in registration and documentation – be that with the objectives of facilitating repatriations from Bangladesh, advocating for ‘pathways to citizenship’ in Myanmar, operationalising humanitarian assistance, or supporting national development strategies through the census. In registration, UN agencies have come up against the barriers of the Myanmar government and, on the other side, have met the collective resistance of Rohingya populations. Thus, Rohingya stories of their documents tell of the brutal power of States and sometimes of the fallibility of international organisations mandated with protecting and assisting them.

The extremity of the Myanmar example may seem to have limited relevance to other situations. However, three clear themes emerge from Rohingya narratives that relate to different academic approaches to identity documents and registration. These three frameworks provide a useful way to frame State and international approaches to registration and documents in wider contexts.

Documents and the Trinity of Citizenship

Human rights literature on citizenship and statelessness studies often describes citizenship as consisting of three component parts – legal status, rights and identity or belonging (e.g Joppke 2007). Identity documents are evidence of citizenship, or otherwise plot a pathway towards future citizenship. As such, they provide access to status, rights and belonging and, in many contexts, without them rights cannot be realised. Identity documents, then, have emancipatory qualities that can lift an individual out of the condition of statelessness. It is such conceptual frameworks that provide a logic behind Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 on legal identities for all, and behind many of the international approaches that focus on registration to end statelessness.

Rohingya too speak of their documents in ways that reflect this trinity of status, rights and belonging – but only the documents they held in the past before the first wave of expulsions in 1978. Refugee populations across Bangladesh, India and Malaysia treasure old documents that they have managed to keep hold of against all the odds. These include expired passports, nullified National Registration Cards from the 1950s and even land tenure certificates issued under the British colonial regime. These documents are described emotively as ones that once provided access to equal rights with other citizens. Now, mostly bereft of the legal and practical value, they still retain their qualities of belonging. In the camps of Bangladesh grassroots organisations painstakingly collect copies of all these old documents as historical evidence of group belonging.

Documents, Surveillance and Securitisation

A second area of social science literature describes registration and identity documents as one of the most important tools available to States for the purposes of surveillance and population control. Whilst registration and documentation can help States to govern more effectively, they can also enable and consolidate the repressive power of authoritarian regimes (Torpey 2000, Scott 1999, Bennet and Lyon 2008.) The uses of new technologies, such as biometrics extend the repressive reach of the State. Within this literature universal registration and “hyper-documentation” can lock in the exclusion of particular groups by “othering” them. People who are without the right documents may then suffer less from “invisibility” and more from “hyper-visibility” to the State which bars access to facilities, restricts and contains them.

In 1992 in Rohingya areas of Myanmar, new security forces called the NaSaKa were deployed. They implemented strict registration processes together with oppressive systems of surveillance and control which prevented travel outside of Northern Rakhine State and severely restricted movement within Rohingya areas. When Rohingya describe household registration lists and “white cards” (mandatory identity cards of the period), they describe being singled out for persecution and extortion, being contained and locked in, being excluded physically and symbolically from the rest of society. They describe how their historic residency in Rakhine could be ended with one stroke of the pen on the household list. Registration enabled the “policies of persecution” and “apartheid.”

Documents and the Reorganisation and Destruction of Identities

A third body of literature from sociological and anthropological traditions understands identity cards and the categorisation of populations through registration as a process that can shape group identities. Within this literature, registration does not just neutrally record a set of facts about individuals, but also has the power to reorganise social relations – to bring identities into being and erase them. Human experience and interaction can be framed and limited by State categories, legal status or identity cards. However, there may also be space to resist and subvert these processes. Within the sociology and anthropology of genocide, this process is understood as part of the dominant group’s reorganisation of national identities through the symbolic and physical destruction of a minority group.

Rohingya narratives relating to old and new documents tell of how “Rohingya” was once a term used by the Myanmar state after independence. It was recorded on some treasured old identity documents, such as household lists. Since the 1990s, the Myanmar government has denied Rohingya existence as a group that belongs to Rakhine State Myanmar. Instead they have imposed the label “Bengali” on Rohingya populations, which has been carried on various identity documents and recorded during registration. Rohingya collective resistance to the latest registration scheme in Myanmar and the issuance of National Verification Cards reflects the fears of identity destruction. They NVC cards “make” them into “foreigners who need to apply for citizenship”. These documents re-imagine Rakhine State as one with a Buddhist rather than multi-religious, multi-ethnic past. For many Rohingya the erasure of their ethnic identity by the Myanmar state goes hand in hand with the physical destruction of their group.

The Convergence: The Desirability of Documents and Registration

There is a point at which a human rights approach and a state approach to documents and registration converge. That is the point where universal registration and documentation becomes desirable. Whilst the human rights approach may draw on a framework that understands documents as providing access to rights, a state government may understand documents and registration as an effective way to govern. Meanwhile, an authoritarian state may understand documents as crucial tools of surveillance and population control that embrace some populations and exclude others. And a genocidal state may consider registration and documentation as an effective way to “cleanse” their nation and erase a population through bureaucratic means. Shocking to many Rohingya, is that despite all the dangers they associate with the nationality verification in Myanmar, this process is being promoted by some international and UN agencies, who are attempting to establish conditions for the return of IDPs and refugees, and to secure ‘pathways to citizenship.’ Perhaps this pin-points where the desirability of documents converges and produces harm.

The dangers and fears Rohingya associate with historic and contemporary documentation processes at home in Myanmar, do not get left behind when they flee across national borders. In the refugee camps in Bangladesh concerns and insecurities remain over how their ethnicity and status is recorded by international agencies and the Government of Bangladesh. They fear biometric and biographic data being shared with the perpetrating government in Myanmar. These worries shape the way Rohingya refugees envisage their futures and have led to a mistrust of the agencies such as UNHCR that are mandated with their protection.

Though not all situations of forced displacement are as extreme as the Rohingya situation in Myanmar, the lesson we may take from Rohingya oral histories about the production of their statelessness, is that documents and registration do not always plot a path to citizenship and inclusion – sometimes they can do the opposite and produce exclusion. Approaches to ending statelessness that lend moral, technical and/or financial support to state registration and national verification processes should take into account the potential for documents and registration to be experienced as repressive and destructive as well as protective. The principle of “do no harm” that governs humanitarian and development projects should equally apply to international support for state registration and verification processes.

In refugee contexts, there is increasing recognition that refugee populations may have specific concerns relating to issues such as consent and privacy in refugee registration. Rohingya experiences and non-compliance underline the need for much better consultation and risk-assessment procedures. Rather than viewing registration as a procedure that neutrally records a set of facts about an individual, such procedures should also take into account the meanings that refugees themselves attach to their ID documents and the categories that frame their identities. Context-specific knowledge relating to the appropriate ways in which information is recorded and shared may help to ensure that the technologies used for registration can be harnessed to protect the legal identities of refugees from states which may attempt to destroy or refuse them documents. Registration and data-collection, be they for the purposes of civil registration, refugee registration or nationality verification, should not inadvertently or otherwise enable states to further exclude and persecute minorities as many Rohingyas fear.


Natalie Brinham (also known as Alice Cowley) is an ESRC-funded PhD student at Queen Mary University of London. Her current research explores Rohingya oral histories relating to their identity cards and the slow production of their statelessness in Myanmar. She has authored and co-authored journalistic and academic articles including in 2014 one of the first academic studies of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, entitled “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya”, Pac-Rim Law and Policy Journal.

This blog post and the others in the series are based on presentations during a workshop convened by the MEC on 1 March 2019 discussing statelessness and legal identity in the context of migration. @BronwenManby


In this series:


Further Reading

Bennet, C. & Lyon, D. (2008) Playing the identity card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective.

Feierstein, D. (2015) Debates on the Criminology of Genocide: Genocide as a Technology for Destroying Identities. State Crime, 4(2), 115-127.

Hayden, R. M. (1996) Imagined Communities and Real Victims: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia. American Ethnologist, 23(4), 783-801.

Hinton, A. L. (ed), (2002) Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of GenocideUniversity of California Press.

Joppke, C. (2007) Transformation of Citizenship: Status, Rights, Identity. Citizenship Studies, 11(1), 37-48.

Lemkin, R. (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

McConnell, F. (2009) Governments‐in‐exile: statehood, statelessness and the reconfiguration of territory and sovereignty. Geography Compass, 3(5), 1902-1919.

Navaro-Yashin, Y. (2007) Make-believe papers, legal forms and the counterfeit: Affective interactions between documents and people in Britain and Cyprus. Anthropological Theory, 7(1), 79-98.

Scott, J. C. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human conditions have failedYale University Press.

Scott, J. C. (2009) The art of not being governed : an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tilly, C. (1995) Citizenship, Identity and Social History. International Review of Social History, 40(S3), 1-17.

Torpey, J. (2000) The invention of the passport: surveillance, citizenship, and the state. New York;Cambridge [England];: Cambridge University Press.

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