Locked in and Locked out: The Impact of Digital Identity Systems on Rohingya Populations in Myanmar


Natalie Brinham, et al. | Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion/UN Special Rapporteur on Racism - TRANSCEND Media Service

Rohingya refugees who were rescued by Bangladesh Coast Guard, sit on the shore in Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on 15 April 2020. Reuters

Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Briefing Paper – November 2020

Introduction and Methodology

Rohingya communities have been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality and persecuted in Myanmar, while also being denied adequate protection as refugees and stateless persons in neighbouring countries. At the centre of their insecurities and vulnerabilities, is a lack of legal status as citizens in Myanmar, and as residents, refugees and stateless persons elsewhere. For over 30 years, Rohingya in Myanmar have been subject to one of the world’s most oppressive registration and surveillance systems, the ultimate aim of which has been to exclude and persecute. In other countries, they have been left out of civil documentation procedures in order to deny them a legal status and thus avoid state responsibility. In more recent times, national personal identification systems are increasingly moving from the paper-based to digital; bringing opportunities to protect, but also potential to entrench exclusion, denial and persecution.

This Briefing Paper contextualises Rohingya human rights and protection concerns within the global trajectory towards legal identities for all and the increased digitisation of identification systems. The paper relates Rohingya experiences of registration systems to wider human rights challenges around racial and xenophobic discrimination,1 digital technologies and borders, as articulated in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Special Rapporteur on Racism’):

Governments and non-state actors are developing and deploying emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous, and discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context. By so doing, they are subjecting refugees, migrants, stateless persons and others to human rights violations, and extracting large quantities of data from them on exploitative terms that strip these groups of fundamental human agency and dignity.”
— Tendayi Achiume, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

The central message of this paper is the urgent imperative to learn from the past and from other contexts, before it is too late. The lessons flowing from previous failures of the international community to protect the Rohingya, and the warning signs emerging from premature attempts to roll out digital ID elsewhere, without first ensuring that the right law and policy framework is in place, must be listened to. The political, economic, institutional and pragmatic reasons to downplay or dismiss such warnings can be immense, but the cost of doing so is likely to be greater still. The Rohingya have endured unthinkable atrocities over many decades, and the world owes it to them to at least now, put a premium on their safety, security, dignity and equality.

Methodology and Approach

The paper, which focuses primarily on the situation in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, also draws on the consultations related to the thematic report on Race, Borders and Digital Technologies presented to the United Nation’s General Assembly 2020 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism. ISI assisted the Special Rapporteur on Racism to organise consultations with experts by experience, academics and practitioners in the statelessness, refugee rights and migrant rights fields. Two of the authors of this report directly participated in the Special Rapporteur on Racism’s consultation process, while others made submissions to it. These consultations drew attention to how bordering technologies can compound statelessness and impact the human rights of stateless persons by furthering exclusion and discrimination and extending state surveillance capacities. Drawing on some of the issues highlighted during the consultation, this paper considers in more detail the use of digitised registration and biometric ID cards as bordering technologies and how these technologies impact stateless communities. In doing so, it considers the experiences and concerns of Rohingya, as one stateless community, in different national contexts which are at various different stages of digitising ID cards and national and refugee registration.

This paper is part of a wider collaboration on the human rights of Rohingya living in Myanmar and in refugee situations elsewhere. The paper recognises the need for Rohingyas to drive solutions for their own futures, and for international organisations and NGOs to be accountable to the Rohingya and to value Rohingya knowledge and analysis by placing it at the centre of projects and initiatives. As such it reflects and incorporates not just the experiences, but also the views, concerns and analyses of Rohingyas impacted by human rights issues.

This paper comprises five main parts. This Introduction, also provides below, an overview and background of the Rohingya and their legal status. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the concept of ‘legal identity’ and explores the drive towards greater digitisation of identity. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 look more closely at the prevailing situation related to digital identities and the Rohingya in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar respectively. These chapters also provide country specific recommendations. Finally, chapter 5 offers some general concluding reflections and recommendations.

The paper is co-authored by researchers and practitioners with in-depth knowledge and experience of the different country contexts, as well as the international and cross-border context of how statelessness and persecution impact Rohingya communities. In drafting the paper, the researchers have drawn on their own existing field work, experience, research findings and analysis of the country contexts to contribute to an understanding of the cross-border and intersecting issues. The paper is also supplemented by additional interviews and analysis with Rohingyas in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and beyond.

Background: Rohingya and their Legal Status

Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic community from Rakhine State Myanmar, whose histories in Rakhine, by far pr-date modern nation states and borders. The arbitrary deprivation of nationality by Myanmar, which was initiated under military rule, is a key element in the decades-long persecution of Rohingya. Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya and their lack of protection as refugees outside Myanmar are strongly linked-to Myanmar’s systematic production and perpetuation of Rohingya statelessness. The arbitrary deprivation of nationality and related systemic violations of numerous fundamental human rights, was part of a wider strategy aimed at “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

Myanmar’s ethnocentric and exclusionary 1982 Citizenship Law, together with the arbitrary implementation of citizenship rules, provided a domestic framework that sanctioned discrimination, persecution and expulsion. Denial of citizenship – and importantly, the groups claim to citizenship by right – reinforced state narratives that Rohingyas were foreigners – ‘illegal immigrants’ – unworthy of state protection. This in turn, reinforced narratives which undermined the very identity of the Rohingya. Powerful voices dictated that ‘there is no ethnic group called Rohingya’ and ‘they are Bengali’, contributing to the stripping of identity, dignity and rights of the group.

Within the context of citizenship stripping and the denial of their ethnic identity, Rohingya have reported that since the 1970s, state authorities have systematically confiscated and cancelled identity documents and other evidence that could be used as proof of their (former) citizenship and inter-generational residency; while simultaneously maintaining detailed records of Rohingya in Myanmar that are used predominantly for surveillance and population control purposes. Abuses by state authorities relating to household registration have been reported across decades including extortion, arbitrary arrest and torture. In 2015, Myanmar authorities cancelled the “white cards” or “Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs)” that Rohingya had held for twenty years, thus stripping them of voting rights ahead of the 2015 elections. Since then, Myanmar has attempted to roll out new ID cards to Rohingya in Rakhine State that identify the holders as non-citizens who require their nationality to be verified. These ID cards are known as National Verification Cards (NVCs). Whilst Myanmar insisted that the national verification process could lead to citizenship for some, many Rohingya resisted the implementation of this scheme on the basis that it erased their group identity and locked in a status of non-citizenship for the group. Within this context, attempts were made to pilot the collection of biometric data from some Rohingya in Rakhine, with a view to developing e-ID cards in future. Rohingya reported the increasing use of coercion and force by government officials and armed security forces in attempting to is-sue the NVCs. In 2016 and 2017, the forced issuance of the NVCs coincided with the waves of genocidal violence by security forces as part of their ‘security operations’ against Rohingya. This resulted in the expulsion of 725,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.

Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh across many decades, with mass expulsions also occurring in 1978 and 1991-1992, followed by two mass forced repatriations which proved unsustainable. More than 200,000 Rohingya made their way back into Bangladesh in the years in be-tween, driven by an increasingly precarious legal status in Myanmar and a lack of state protection. In 2016, Bangladesh began to digitise the national ID system with a view to prevent forgery and improve service access for citizens. After the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the refugee registration system was also digitised. Digitised registration was viewed as supporting evidence of Rohingyas’ right to return to Myanmar, whereby proof of residence in Rakhine was not contingent on Myanmar’s paper-based registration system that was open to abuse.

The digitisation of refugee registration was also needed to improve the efficiency of aid delivery and access to basic services for refugees, as well as other protections and benefits. However, the collection and storage of biometric and biographic information comes with risks and concerns, in particular Rohingyas in the camps are concerned about how this data will be used in relation to future repatriations back to Myanmar.

In 2012, a campaign of state-led violence drove at least 130,000 Rohingya and Muslims from their homes in Rakhine. Most remain detained in internment camps in Rakhine state and are subjected to restrictions of movement and restrictions of their rights. With restrictions and a lack of protection available in Bangladesh, between 2012 and 2015, an estimated 170,000 Rohingya boarded boats from Rakhine and Bangladesh and made perilous journeys across the sea to southeast Asia. Tens of thousands also made their way on the slightly less dangerous overland routes to join other Rohingyas in India. In India, biometric IDs or Aadhaar cards provided holders with access to a wide range of services. Rohingyas’ legal status in the country became increasingly precarious in 2017 and the Aadhaar sys-tem together with citizenship and population registers has produced further exclusions and insecurities for Rohingya. In particular, Rohingyas have highlighted the increased risk of refoulement to Myanmar, and concerns about the sharing of biographic and biometric data and surveillance information between India and Myanmar. They remain concerned about the risk of the forced implementation of Myanmar’s national verification processes on return.

Across the decades, without legal status and state protection in either Myanmar or Bangladesh, many Rohingya moved onwards to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. In most of these settings, Rohingya do not have access to a secure legal status and either live in refugee camps dependent on aid, or work in the informal and unorganised sectors of the economy. Without legal status, their lives are precarious, and they experience intergenerational statelessness.

This severely impacts their access to rights and services and leaves them vulnerable to external social and economic shocks. As Co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, Nay San Lwin, explains:

The global push for digitised and biometric IDs and borders can only benefit Rohingya once Myanmar restores the citizenship and ethnic rights of Rohingya. No countries except western countries want to legalise the status of the Rohingya. All these countries believe that Rohingya belong to Myanmar and they should have legal status in Myanmar. So, none of them considered legalising the status of hundreds of thousands of people who need proper education, livelihood, etc. All the Rohingya except in western countries will suffer until Myanmar restores all due rights.

Legal Identity for All and Digitisation of ID

Recent years have seen more countries introduce and roll out digital identification systems…

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Locked In Locked Out: The Rohingya Briefing Paper



Natalie Brinham is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) PhD student at Queen Mary University of London researching statelessness and state crime and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. She has worked for many years in NGOs in the UK and Southeast Asia on forced migration, trafficking and statelessness in both frontline service provision roles and research and advocacy roles. This included four years working as a research and advocacy consultant on a multi-country project on the human rights of stateless Rohingya. Under the pseudonym Alice Cowley, she co-authored a three-year study on the Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya with Maung Zarni. She holds an MA from UCL Institute of Education and a BA (Honors) from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Anubhav Dutt Tiwari is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, Monash University (Australia), and a Lecturer (on leave) at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University (India). His research focuses on the intersections between law, citizenship and refugee lives.

Jessica Field is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (UK), and an Adjunct Associate Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University (India). Her research explores the politics and history of humanitarianism and refugee protection in India.

Jaivet Ealom is originally from Myanmar and serves as the Chief Strategic Officer at the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative. He is currently studying at the University of Toronto and is also the Community Manager at Needs List, a public benefit corporation seeking to advance the humanitarian aid sector by leveraging AI.

José María Arraiza is based in Madrid and holds a PhD from Åbo Akademi University. He is a researcher on mi-nority issues specialising in legal identity and land rights. He has worked in the human rights field in research and peacekeeping since 1998 in conflict and post-conflict contexts such as Kosovo, East Timor and Myanmar.

Natalie Brinham is a Programme Officer at ISI, work-ing primarily on ISI’s Rohingya programme. She is also a PhD Candidate at the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), Queen Mary University of London. She has worked for many years in NGOs in the U.K. and Southeast Asia on forced migration, trafficking and statelessness.

Amal de Chickera is a Co-director and Co-founder of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. A Sri Lankan lawyer, Amal has been working in the nationality rights field for over 12 years and has closely followed and worked on the Rohingya issue throughout this time.

About the Institutes on Statelessness and Inclusion and this initiative:

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion(ISI) is the first and the only human rights NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at the global level. Its Mission is to promote inclusive societies by realising and protecting the right to a nationality.

The root causes of the depravations and marginalisation endured by the Rohingya community over multiple decades, are based on racist, discriminatory and xenophobic ideologies, laws and policies. While Myanmar is the source of these deprivations, other countries have also failed to provide meaningful protection, status or rights to Rohingya, whether they fled to their country or were born there. In this context, a principled and sustained human rights framing of the challenges, which is rooted in the information, expertise and solutions put forward by Rohingya activists, and which challenges and shapes responses to the crisis by states, UN agencies, humanitarian actors and others, is much needed. This initiative aims to provide such a framing, through the production of briefing papers and other interventions on different human rights challenges.

This is the second paper to be produced under this initiative. The first paper, published in August 2020, looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Rohingya communities.


This briefing paper is published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, in association with the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (“UN Special Rapporteur on Racism”). The paper was designed and coordinated by Natalie Brinham. It has been co-authored by Natalie Brinham, Jessica Field, Anubhav Tiwari, Jaivet Ealom, Jose Arraiza and Amal de Chickera, with input from the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism. E. Tendayi Achiume. The paper complements the 10 November 2020 report A/75/590 of the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism to the UN General Assembly. The paper also draws on the expertise and inputs of other partners from within the Rohingya community. The paper was proofread and finalised for publication by Georgia Field, with assistance from Gabriella Herraiz. Design and layout by Alena Jascanka, with assistance from Ellis Leahy.

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