GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is urging Indian authorities to take steps to ensure that no one in the northeastern state of Assam is rendered stateless. Nearly 2 million people were recently struck off Assam's citizenship list and are at risk.
The U.N. refugee agency does not question India's sovereign right and authority to establish who is an Indian national. But it says the risk of people excluded from the citizenship roll and becoming stateless is of great concern.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told VOA all means must be taken to ensure this does not happen.
"What we are asking India is to ensure that adequate access to information, legal aid and legal recourse in accordance with UNHCR mandate and international standards is followed so people are not left without a nationality," he said.
People have 120 days in which to prove their citizenship before regional quasi-judicial bodies. Those deemed to be illegal immigrants can then appeal to higher courts.
Baloch said it is too early to know how this will work out; but, he says he worries many people who do not have access to the right information and documentation and do not have the financial means to pursue the appeals process may end up stateless.
"We are urging the government to take steps that mitigate the risk of any individual being left stateless as a result of this exercise. We have seen some encouraging statements from the Ministry of External Affairs…that they will make sure that all the people who have been excluded have access to their rights," he said.
The UNHCR warns any process that could leave nearly 2 million people in Assam State without a nationality would be a big blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness.
The agency estimates up to 10 million people are stateless worldwide. Stateless people lack all basic rights of citizenship. They have no right to an education, to work, to health care, or to register births or marriages.
The UNHCR is calling on Indian authorities not to detain or deport anyone whose nationality has not been verified. India has defended its decision, with news reports saying the government carried out the exercise to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Some critics say the move is an attempt to deport millions of minority Muslims, many of whom came from Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government has said it will not accept anyone deported from Assam.
Bangladesh currently hosts more than one million Muslim Rohingya refugees whom the government of Myanmar has stripped of their rights of citizenship and rendered stateless.