There’s a curious place you can visit, just a short stretch down the road from where the Statelessness Programme has its office in Tilburg. It’s called Baarle-Hertog and it’s a little patch of Belgium, entirely encircled by territory of the Netherlands. Then, inside this patch of Belgian soil, is another, smaller plot of land which is once again a part of the Netherlands, but cut off from the rest of the country completely by the area of Belgian territory. A state, within a state, within a state. Arising many centuries ago as a result of various treaties, land swaps and sales, it is an anomaly which, much to the bewilderment of many, has defied all efforts at being corrected. Over time, successive attempts to create a more regular border situation – including as recently as 1996 – were thwarted, thanks in part to the strong sentiment of proud residents in favour of maintaining the status quo. Today, with both Belgium and the Netherlands enveloped by the European Union, this geopolitical curiosity has little real significance and it serves largely as something of a tourist attraction.
Half-way around the world, in South Asia, we find a similar geopolitical anomaly of far greater significance. The border region of India and Bangladesh, in the districts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, is dotted with its own series of enclaves – little patches of one state that are surrounded by the territory of the other. The scale of the situation is impressive: although exact figures differ from one source to another, it appears that there are over 100 Indian enclaves in Bangladeshi territory and more than 50 Bangladeshi enclaves in Indian soil. Here, too, there are also some enclaves within enclaves, such as the Bangladeshi sub-enclave of Haluapara that is surrounded by the Indian enclave of Garati, in turn encircled by Bangladesh. For over fifty years, India and Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan), have intermittently and unsuccessfully discussed the exchange of these enclaves and the normalisation of the border. In 1974, an agreement was even reached about a land swap to resolve the situation of the enclaves, but this was never implemented. All the while, the tens of thousands of residents of both sets of enclaves have been left much to their own devices, their physical separation from the mainland state resulting in them becoming cut off from regular government services. Infrastructure (e.g. roads, postal service and electricity), healthcare, education, markets/trade, law enforcement, tax collection and politics – none reach effectively across the foreign divide from the mainland state and into the enclaves. Even travelling from the enclave to the mainland state became a real challenge when passport and visa systems were introduced but no provision was made for passport offices within the enclaves to issue documents to residents, forcing them to cross borders illegally just to file a passport application in their own state.
As one study summarised, the enclaves formed an “archipelago of stateless territories” and the inhabitants themselves have been described by numerous observers as stateless. Indeed, if their lives are untouched by their purported country of nationality due to the absence of any functions of the state in their place of residence and their inability to travel to the mainland state, perhaps there is no “state” which considers them as nationals and they could in fact be identified as stateless. Or perhaps they are not truly “considered as” nationals, given that they have been left stranded in their enclave with little to no interaction with the state. [A stateless person is someone who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law]. It’s certainly the case that the peculiarities of their situation raise some fundamental questions about the meaning of statehood, the content of nationality and the interpretation of various components of the definition of statelessness.
Today, the Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves are making international headlines because the two countries seem to be taking unprecedented steps towards a resolution of the situation. This month, the first ever joint census of the population of the enclaves is being carried out, to get a complete picture of how many people live in these patches of territory. It looks as though, when the countries’ leaders next meet, the proposal of a land-swap or other settlement for this anomaly will be back on the agenda. If and when this does happen, the repositioning of the borders will inevitably lead to new questions about the nationality of those who live in these areas. As with all situations where sovereignty over a plot of land is passed from one state to another, the matter of citizenship will have to be carefully coordinated in order to ensure that no-one is left stateless. It would be a sad state of affairs indeed if normal state functions and services are finally secured for the enclaves, only to now leave the people without citizenship or forced to relocate in order to continue to enjoy a nationality.
Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme