Lara Kajs | 18 April 2022 |

Statelessness is the term used to describe the status of individuals who do not have citizenship to any nation. Although they may live in all parts of the world, they are not protected by any state and are often the target of persecution or are a forgotten part of the population. People labeled as “stateless” do not have access to basic human services such as healthcare, education, housing, and employment opportunities. They are often at risk for food insecurity, violence, gender-based violence, and exploitation and abuse.

The root causes of statelessness vary. Some are stateless because their births are not properly registered. Without proper and accurate registration, there are no birth documents. Birth records give a person identity, a nationality. Without birth documents (or citizenship documents and records), they cannot travel, own a house, or vote. Many people defined as stateless must work illegally to make money, and they live in constant fear of being arrested and deported.

Causes of Statelessness

Statelessness takes deep root and creates barriers, not only in the hosting country but may also prevent them from being able to return to their country of origin. People living with statelessness are considered “other.” It may be difficult for people labeled stateless to develop a rich sense of self and to hold onto hope and dignity.

Another cause for statelessness, and perhaps the most common one is discrimination enacted by the country where they live. Many countries have discriminatory laws wherein certain groups are disqualified from citizenship based on ethnicity, religion, or national origin, or dictate that a specific gender determines whether their nationality is passed to their children. Another cause for statelessness is that some countries revoke the citizenship of groups or individuals during ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Nationality is a Basic Human Right

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms, “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of nationality nor denied the right to change his/her nationality.” Unfortunately, today many millions of people – as many as ten million – in the world are stateless. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, every ten minutes, a child is born stateless.

There are three UN treaties that address the basic rights and protections of stateless people under international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention outlines the basic rights of refugees. Refugees may be forced to flee a country where their lives or freedoms are in serious danger. Not all stateless people are refugees, and not all refugees are stateless, but the two groups overlap frequently. When a state revokes a group’s citizenship, group members often become refugees. At present 149 countries have ratified this treaty. The US did not ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention; however, it did ratify the 1967 Protocol.

The UN 1954 Statelessness Convention was the first international treaty to outline the rights of stateless people. Ratifying countries agree to uphold a standard treatment of and respect for stateless people’s rights to housing, education, access to identity documents, religious freedom, and more. Ninety-six countries ratified the 1954 Statelessness Convention and agreed to uphold its terms. The US did not ratify the Convention.

The UN 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness supplements the 1954 Convention. The 1961 treaty aims to prevent and reduce statelessness, defining how stateless people can become citizens of a country. As of 2021, seventy-seven countries have ratified the 1961 Convention: while the US has not.

There is a decline in the number of states ratifying each of the Conventions, quite possibly because there is a lack of urgency or unwillingness to address this very serious situation. But denying a people citizenship, denying them identity, denying them basic human rights and services, and denying them a life – should demand immediacy, and should give cause to at least try to prevent and reduce statelessness.

Under the Nuremberg Laws, millions of Jews, black people, and European Roma were stripped of their citizenship by the Nazi regime during World War II. These actions were not based on religion but were based on identity – on who they were and who their parents were. Many millions were forced to flee Germany to survive. They lost their homes, their language, their culture, and their communities. After the war, Germany offered to reinstate the survivor’s citizenship.

The Rohingya

The Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, have been stateless since 1982. The government claims that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from the Bengal region of India and has denied them citizenship – even though the people in question were born in Myanmar and lived there for generations. For decades, Myanmar’s military has carried out a campaign of violence and discrimination against the Rohingya that amounts to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Over one million Rohingya have fled from Myanmar, but they remain stateless and cannot access basic health, education, employment, or other services in any country.

In 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called for the international community to end statelessness. The UN put forth the Plan to End Statelessness, a ten-year plan, based on ten actions that will work to prevent and resolve statelessness by preventing new cases and better protecting those who are currently stateless. Millions of people around the world live without a nationality. For the global community to change this, it will take a total commitment to work together. Citizenship is a human right. No one should be an “other.”

Photo Credit: Myanmar’s Rohingya: Uncertain Future by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. Licensed under CC license 2.0