"My father used to say, when someone has citizenship, it opens thousands of doors."
When *Zainul Adam was growing up, he dreamed of being a citizen.
My father used to say, when someone has citizenship, it opens thousands of doors. You are treated as an equal, with the opportunity to go to school, access healthcare and apply for jobs.
A member of the Rohingya community, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, Zainul grew up in Maungdaw township in Rakhine state in the west of the country. Since the early 1980s, Rohingya have been unable to attain citizenship in their native country, making them the world’s largest stateless population. As a result, their freedom of movement, religion and access to basic services including education, have been severely curtailed.
Zainul fled in 2006, thirteen years after his father had also been forced to flee. He arrived in Bangladesh, where some one million Rohingya have since fled.
Despite the many challenges he faced, his family encouraged him to learn, lining their home with books. He studied hard and managed to secure a place to study medicine in Malaysia. Mid-way through the course he was offered the opportunity to study for three years in Ireland, as the University of Galway had a twinning programme with his own university.
However, not long after arriving he faced issues with his legal status, as he soon learned that no country recognised him as a citizen.
Eager to continue his studies, he sought to be recognised as a stateless person, a specific legal status for “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. Ireland is a signatory to the 1954 Convention relating to the status of stateless persons, however it does not have a dedicated determination procedure through which people can be recognised as stateless, meaning there was no way for someone like Zainul to be recognised as such.
Stuck in a legal limbo, he had no other choice than to apply for asylum in Ireland. However, he was denied international protection as he was told he could safely return to Myanmar.
“It was one decision that could have changed my life. If I had been recognised as a stateless person I could have become a citizen 5-6 years ago and finished my medical studies and contributed so much to society. However, I ended up losing my medical career and so many productive years. These are the things one decision can change.”
However, recognising his unique circumstances, in 2017 the Irish government granted Zainul permission to stay in Ireland. He has now renewed his studies, this time in theology. Despite this, he is still campaigning for the establishment of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure so that he and other stateless people in Ireland can enjoy the same rights as people with citizenship.
I hope that Ireland finally introduces a statelessness determination procedure so that other people won’t face the same challenges I did. For me, I would like to get a travel document. I haven’t seen my mum in 16 years, and it’s important for me that I can see her again. Half my life has been away from her.
*The subject’s name has been changed to protect their identity.