Passport politics: citizenship and statelessness as weapons of war.

Alex Jean
2 min readMar 23, 2022


Far from being a “technical problem with paperwork,” so-called passport politics can be a harbinger of conflict.

What do Ukraine and Myanmar have in common?

Passport politics in Asia: Citizenship-stripping, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Today, amid all the terrible news on Ukraine, the US government finally admitted that Myanmar is committing genocide against the Rohingya. This genocide has been unfolding for at least a decade, and comes decades after it stripped citizenship from an entire ethnic group, the Rohingya, by law. Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state, but the government has gone to great lengths to eliminate minorities to help cement its political control. As in many genocides, citizenship-stripping comes first, followed by waves of worsening violence. In Myanmar, citizenship and statelessness have long been weapons of war.

While continuing to remain “neutral” in the Ukraine conflict, the government of India has continued to strip citizenship from over a million minorities in the Assam region. Over a thousand people are in detention. It is not clear what the Indian government plans for the future, but it could expand this program to other regions, yet there is still time for the Indian government to abandon these policies and choose a different path.

Ukraine: The citizenship wars

Statelessness and citizenship are also highly relevant to the conflict in Ukraine, which has minority populations of ethnic Russian speakers, Roma, Tartars and others. Some ethnic minorities in Ukraine are stateless due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the Ukrainian government to resolve their status. The day after President Zelensky was elected in 2019, Russia passed a law enabling people in Eastern Ukraine to get Russian citizenship. By February, over 700,000 people in Eastern Ukraine had received a Russian passport under the new law. In 2020, President Zelensky also signed a new law to resolve the problem of statelessness in Ukraine. Stateless minorities would become eligible for Ukrainian citizenship. He also pushed for a law allowing dual citizenship with some countries, though not with Russia. With these reforms, Ukraine, a multi-ethnic state, would adopt a liberal citizenship regime. Then Putin invaded.

The politics of citizenship and statelessness are so often present in places where conflicts later break out, yet their role as bell-weathers of conflict and genocide often get overlooked. Often, statelessness and passport politics are dismissed as technical problems, a footnote to geopolitics. It’s past time to put passport politics where they belong: front and center on the international agenda.