Countries Covered: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Vietnam

A. Laws

  • Citizenship Law (jus sanguinis/jus soli)

The citizenship laws of three states (Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste) operate through a jus sanguinis structure with children born to a citizen parent within or outside of the country gaining citizenship. Four states (Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam) have jus sanguinis structures that differentiate between persons born within our outside of the country. Of particular note, the citizenship law of Malaysia contains gender discriminatory provisions barring women from transferring their nationality onto their children if they are born outside of the territory of Malaysia. The citizenship law of Singapore also contains gender discriminatory provisions which limit the ability of mothers to confer citizenship onto children born in the state whose fathers are diplomats or members of foreign forces during times of war. The law of five states (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines (for naturalized women only), Thailand and Singapore) contain gender discriminatory provisions that limit the ability of married women to confer their nationality onto foreign spouses on the same basis as men.

The interrelation between ethnicity and citizenship is notable in Southeast Asia, specifically in Brunei, Cambodia and Myanmar. Two states (Myanmar and Brunei) have ethnically defined jus sanguinis structures. The citizenship laws of Brunei operate largely through jus sanguinis structure and contains both racial and gender discriminatory provisions. Brunei’s citizenship laws limits persons who can gain citizenship through the operation of law to persons of certain defined ethnic groups and whose father or both parents (but not mother alone) is a citizen of Brunei. Similarly, citizenship of Myanmar is defined largely upon ethnic ground, and through jus sanguinis principles, with citizenship available to those who are considered “nationals” or whose parents both are nationals and members of defined ethnic groups. Further the Citizenship law of Myanmar is the only law in the Asia Pacific that explicitly provides for two other categories of citizenship being associate citizenship and naturalized citizenship, which the government may confer on any person ‘in the interest of the State’.

The citizenship laws of two states (Cambodia and Thailand) operate through combined jus soli and jus sanguinis structures.

  • Treaty ratification status

There is varied ratification of treaties across Southeast Asia, with some states — including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam — having very high rates of ratification, while others — Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore — very low. The Philippines is the only state in Southeast Asia, which is party to either of the Stateless Conventions, having ratified both the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions. Three states (Cambodia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste) are parties to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol.

All states are parties to CEDAW and CRC. Brunei and Malaysia maintain reservation to article 9(2) of CEDAW which provides women with equal rights regarding the nationality of their children. Malaysia has also retained a reservation in respect to article 7 of the CRC which provides the right to a nationality.

Eight of the eleven states in the sub-region are parties to the ICESCR (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam) and seven states have accessioned the ICCPR (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam). Six states (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam) are also all parties to ICERD.

B. Population

  •  Reported stateless persons

Based on statistics reported to UNHCR Southeast Asia is the sub-region with the largest number of persons affected by statelessness, collectively reporting over 1.4 million stateless persons. All countries apart from Laos and Timor-Leste have reported figures on stateless persons in 2021 to UNHCR.

Most identified stateless populations within Southeast Asia comprise of in situ ethnic minority groups who have experienced protracted and intergenerational statelessness. In the region Myanmar has the largest reported stateless population, reporting 600,000 stateless persons to UNHCR in 2021. The UNHCR notes that the figure of 600,000 persons represents the higher range estimate of UNHCR of the number of stateless Rohingya both in Rakhine State and internally displaced.

Ethnic minority groups in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam also face protracted and intergenerational statelessness. With the largest of  these populations including 561,527 people in Thailand (largely comprised of members of the ‘Hill Tribe’ communities), 75,000 persons of Vietnamese ethnicity in Cambodia, a population of 35,475 people in Vietnam (including members of the Hmong community and people of Cambodian heritage) and over 20,000 persons of Chinese heritage in Brunei.

  •  Persons at risk of statelessness

Overall, higher rates of civil registration (compared to the Pacific) and less reliance on household registrations (compared to East Asia) should lead to lower number of persons seen to be at risk of statelessness within Southeast Asia. However, there remains a number of identified groups who remain at risk. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Thailand low rates of birth registration among certain populations in have exposed potentially millions of children to the risk of statelessness, with children of migrant workers and ethnic minorities left especially vulnerable to statelessness. Within the Philippines six population groups have been identified as being at risk of statelessness being: indigenous sea-faring Sama Bajau, Persons of Indonesian Descent (the status of most of this population group has been resolved in recent years), foundlings, unregistered children who have been forcibly displaced due to armed conflict and persons of Japanese descent. Within Malaysia multiple populations have also been identified including persons who have resided in Malaysia since pre-independence as well as their decedents (including individuals of Tamil ethnicity), children of mixed-nationality marriages (through the impact of gender discriminatory nationality laws), indigenous persons (including mobile maritime populations and Orang Asli communities), refugees and irregular migrants (and their children) in Sabah East Malaysia, as well as persons lacking documentation and foundling children.

  •  Undetermined nationalities

In March 2022 the Chief Minister of Sabah, Malaysia announces that 810,443 residents of Sabah are non-citizens. This group represents the largest and most notable population of undetermined nationality within Southeast Asia as disagreement exists as to whether this population are stateless or should be considered citizens of either the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. The citizenship status of other population groups including children of returned marriage migrants in Vietnam and persons of Chinese, Indian and Nepali descent in Myanmar remains uncertain.

  • Stateless Refugees

Four countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand) in the region reported populations of stateless refugees to UNHCR in 2021.All of the reported stateless refugees are Rohingya from Myanmar, with Malaysia reporting the largest population (103,380), while Indonesia (641), the Philippines (5) and Thailand (198) all reported comparatively small population groups.

C. Stakeholders

101 former SNAP members were based in countries within Southeast Asia, including 33 active members. The variance of connections across the region is notably, with high rates of SNAP membership in Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand and notably low (or no) membership in states including Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

Active SNAP members within Southeast Asia included:

  • Denise Coghlan, Jesuit Refugee Service (Cambodia)
  • Butmao Sourn, Minority Rights Organisation (Cambodia)
  • Myrna Evora, Plan Indonesia
  • Clara Siagian, Puskapa, Univerity of Indonesia
  • Arif Rahmadi, Dompet Dhuafa (Indonesia)
  • Muhammad Noor, Rohingya Project (Malaysia)
  • Amanda Cheong, Princeton University (Malaysia)
  • Vivienne Chew, International Detention Coalition (Malaysia)
  • Jenifer Majalap, Pacos (Malaysia)
  • Eric Paulsen, ASEAN Representative (Malaysia)
  • Maalini Ramalo, DHRRA (Malaysia)
  • Shan, Asia Foundation (Malaysia)
  • Hartini Zainudin, UNICEF (Malaysia)
  • Rodziana binti Mohamed Razali, Islamic Science University of Malaysia
  • Saqib Munner Shekh, Rohingya Project (Malaysia)
  • Suu Chit (May Aye Thandar Kywe), Seagull Foundation (Myanmar)
  • Abdul Rasheed, Rohingya leader (Myanmar)
  • Myo Win, Smile Education and Development Foundation (Myanmar)
  • Mohamed Yunus, Rohingya leader (Myanmar)
  • Jose Maria Arraiza, Norwegian Refugee Council (Myanmar)
  • Yadana, Braveheart Foundation (Myanmar)
  • May Thiri Khin, Smile Education and Development Foundation (Myanmar)
  • Amihan Abueva, Child Rights Coalition Asia (Philippines)
  • Anne Maureen Manigbas, Ateneo Human Rights Centre (Philippines)
  • Marcy Carpizo, Director, Peace and Human Security Institute, Western Mindano State University (Philippines)
  • Quingrui Huang, ICVA (Thailand)
  • Srijula Yongstar, Heinrich Boell Foundation (Thailand)
  • Amy Smith, Fortify Rights (Thailand)
  • Helen Brunt, ICRC (Thailand)
  • Kreangkrai Chaimuangdee, The Life Skills Development Foundation (Thailand)
  • Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University (Thailand)
  • Chris Lewa, Arakan Project (Thailand)
  • Lalita Yawangsan, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (Thailand)

Coalitions exist within Indonesia and Thailand. In May 2018 SUAKA was formed in Indonesia as a coalition of civil society organisations working of Refugee Rights Protection, including the rights of stateless refugees. In Thailand with Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CSPR) largely focuses on the rights of refugees in the country but undertakes advocacy regarding reufgees affected by statelessness. In June 2020 SNAP participated in an exploratory meeting on the creation of a civil society network on statelessness in the Philippines. The status of this network is unknown.

Additionally, the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights has advocated to the for reform of the gender-discriminatory provision in Bruneian and Malaysian citizenship laws.

NFA has one key partner based in Indonesia, Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) Indonesia. HRWG functions as a network of more than 48 civil society organisation working across Indonesia to promote human rights. NFA has developed a strong partner in Cambodia in Women Peace Makers (WPM). WPM has spearheaded facilitated listening techniques to work with ethnic minority groups in Cambodia to develop research and peace-building advocacy. NFA has further developed a partnership with is Family Frontiers (formerly Foreign Spouses Support Group), an organization led by Bina Ramanand, and focused on advocacy and empowerment of persons affected by Malaysia’s gender discriminatory citizenship laws.

D.  Causes of Statelessness

  • Discriminatory nationality laws

As noted above ethnicity and national identity share a deep connection within a number of states in Southeast Asia. The most conspicuous example of this is the ethnic discrimination present in the nationality law of Myanmar that has rendered hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya stateless. Denial of citizenship to the Rohingya, as codified in the 1982 citizenship law, has been a key component of the systemic oppressions and persecution of the Rohingya people by the government and military of Myanmar prior to the 2021 military coupe.

Additionally, ethnic discrimination affects a number of other populations in countries other than Myanmar. For example, in the process of Thai nation building in the 20th Century, Thai ethnicity and citizenship were deeply entwined. Members of nine ethnic groups often referred to as ‘hill-tribe’ or ‘highland’ communities living in the northwest of the country have faced intergenerational statelessness due to social exclusion. In Brunei, limitations of nationality to certain prescribed ethnic groups, or “indigenous groups of the Malay race” is the primary cause of statelessness with the largest stateless registered stateless group being persons of Chinese heritage.

Gender discriminatory nationality laws place a number of children at risk of statelessness in Malaysia and Brunei. Notably, children born outside of Malaysia to Malaysian citizen mothers and foreign fathers do not immediately gain citizenship of Malaysia. Children born in Malaysia out of wedlock (or in situations where the marriage is not recognized by the state, notably non-Islamic customary or religious marriages) to a Malaysian citizen father and a mother who is stateless or whose citizenship cannot be ascertained, are also at risk of statelessness due to discriminatory provision that disallow the transfer of nationality from a father outside of wedlock.

A combination of ethnic discrimination and gender discriminatory provisions also rendered stateless persons of Japanese descent who were born in the Philippines between the 1930’s and 1970’s (as well as their descendants) to Filippino mothers and Japanese fathers.

  •  Lack of legal safeguards

Two states in Southeast Asia (Brunei and Myanmar) provide no protection for foundling children to gain citizenship. The citizenship laws of six states (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam) explicitly provide that foundling children will be considered citizens. The citizenships laws of three states (Malaysia, Thailand and Timor-Leste) provide some protection for foundling children under their law. Malaysian law consider citizens those born in Malaysia who are not born citizens of another country. Timor-Leste’s citizenship laws provide that a child of ‘incognito parents’ will be considered an original citizen of Timor-Leste. It is unclear if Thailand’s jus soli provisions could provide access to citizenship for foundling children.

Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore do not provide any explicit protection for children born to stateless parents. The jus soli provisions of Cambodian citizenship law may provide protection to children born to stateless parents in limited circumstances (where those parents were born and resided legally in Cambodia and were considered ‘foreigners’). The citizenship laws of Indonesia, Laos, Timor-Leste and Vietnam explicitly provide that children born to stateless parents will be considered citizens. In Vietnam, the parents must have a ‘permeant residence’ in Vietnam. Laotian citizenship similarly provides that children born to stateless parents are considered Laotian citizens if the parents are permanently residing in Laos and have ‘integrated to the Lao society and culture’. The Malaysian Constitution provides that every person born in Malaysia who is “not born a citizen of any country” will be considered as a citizen of Malaysia. Thailand’s jus soli citizenship provisions may provide avenues to citizenship to children of stateless parents who have regularized stay in Thailand.

  •  Citizenship stripping

Citizenship stripping is a less prevalent cause of statelessness within Southeast Asia, however three countries (Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam) have notable instances of citizenship deprivation. Under the operation of the 1958 citizenship law, persons residing outside of Indonesia for a period of more than five years without registration lost their Indonesian citizenship (with no inbuilt protection from statelessness). While the law was reformed in 2006, there remains a small number of persons of Indonesian descent who resided in the Philippines and were stripped of their Indonesian citizenship.

Due to barriers to dual nationality in the laws of receiving countries marriage migrants from Vietnam had to relinquish citizenship to naturalize as citizens, however, where a relationship was determined to be a ‘sham’ or fraudulent women have been stripped of their nationality without protections from statelessness.

In February 2020, the government of Indonesia disallowed over 1,000 Indonesian citizens who had left Indonesia and joined the Islamic State from returning to the country. While not officially stripping these individual (who include family members of fighters) of their citizenship, concerns have been raised over the risk of future statelessness faced by this population group.

  •  Administrative barriers

The denial of civil registration documents and arbitrary and discriminatory applications of policy have played a key role in causing and compounding statelessness in Southeast Asia. For example, low birth registration rates and barriers to birth registration especially among children of migrant workers and communities living in poverty have placed as many as 50 million children in Indonesia at risk of statelessness. In the past decades the provision and withdrawal of civil registration documents has been complex, discriminatory and a key component of the persecution of the Rohingya population in Myanmar. Additionally, the failure of the government of Myanmar to facilitate the naturalization of Rohingya populations, and the degradation of the documented status of Rohingya that is also a key cause of statelessness within Myanmar.

Ethnic minority groups in Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam have also face barriers to gaining civil registration and citizenship, with such barriers leading to protracted and intergenerational statelessness. Ethnic Vietnamese populations in Cambodia have also faced discriminatory barriers to both recognition of citizenship and access to citizenship through naturalization. Notably, administrative barriers have continued to limit the ability of members of ‘highland’ communities in Thailand to gain citizenship. Differentiation in treatment by officials, lack of documentation, ingrained concepts of communities as ‘mobile’ and physical/geographic barriers to accessing communities have complicated the citizenship application/verification process for these communities. Administrative and practical barriers to accessing birth registration has placed as many as 130,000 Sama Bajau (Bajut Laut) community members — who reside in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia — at risk of statelessness. Additionally, lack of documentation, specifically among older populations in Singapore has left persons stateless since the country’s independence in 1965.