Statelessness: Home is Nowhere

Every ten minutes, a stateless child is born. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a report that claims there at least 10 million stateless people, 3 million being children. (Watch: Why don’t these 10 million people belong?)

Being stateless means not having a nationality. In simple terms, there are two ways to acquire a nationality: when a country gives nationality through birth on their territory, and when parents are able to transmit nationality to their children. Someone can either be born or become stateless throughout their life.  

Due largely to discriminatory citizenship laws and violent conflict, millions of families are displaced across the globe. Stateless people are denied basic rights that people with nationality take for granted. For one, you are unable to get an ID. In the eyes of the law and state, if you lack identification papers then you are a non-human. Being stateless means you will not have basic human rights such as medical care and education. You cannot get formal employment or even marry. Many stateless people face societal discrimination, exploitation and poverty.

Each country has laws to determine who can become a citizen. Some legal loopholes can leave a person stateless. For example, children in a country with unknown parents are called “foundlings.” By lacking paperwork from their parents or a birth certificate, it is almost impossible for them to get a nationality. Another reason statelessness occurs is when people move (mostly due to violent conflict), children tend to lose their nationality. This can also occur due to changes in borders and creation of new states. In the 1990s, the main cause of statelessness was the dissolution of the USSR.  In some countries, a person can also lose their nationality if they have lived too long outside of the territory.

When Vikash, a stateless 23-year-old in Malaysia was interviewed by the UNHCR, she said, “My entire life is a question mark.” Being stateless means having no sense of belonging, no land to call home and no protection from a nation.

One of the biggest reasons for statelessness are discriminatory laws that deny citizenship based on race, religion or gender. Hence, it is a man-made conflict. The UNHCR report is part of campaign called Ending Statelessness Within 10 Years. The campaign seeks to “harness a unique window of opportunity to to garner public, national and international support to finally eradicate the scourge of statelessness within a decade.”

In 27 countries, including Syria, women are not able to pass down citizenship to their children. It can only be passed down by the father, and if the father is gone or dead it means the child will remain stateless. This is specifically a big problem in Syria with the refugee crisis. More than 140,000 children are born stateless in countries neighboring Syria. Yet, families fleeing Syria don’t usually take documentation with them to proof birth and marriage certificates.

There are other cases such as the denial of citizenship in the Dominican Republic to people of Haitian descent. This year, a ‘cleansing’ occurred in Dominican where thousands of Haitians and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent were relocated to Haiti due to a citizenship law approved in 2013. The Dominican government stated that this was simply a way to solve immigration problem. Yet, many of the people sent back to Haiti had been born in the Dominican Republic and had never even been to Haiti.  (Check out the article I wrote about it).

Who is stateless and where?

  • The exact number of stateless people is unknown.
  • 600,000 people are stateless as a consequence of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Only in Montenegro (formerly part of Yugoslav federation) has 3,300 registered stateless people.
  • One million in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are stateless because of citizenship law.
  • There are 700,000 stateless people in Cote d’Ivoire, and 300,000 are ‘foundlings’.

Statelessness is a humanitarian crisis that can be solved. Because these people don’t have a voice, many citizens of the world ignore the problem. Now it’s a good time to spread awareness and to protest against the injustices that these people are suffering through.

Watch the campaign video: #IBELONG

Sign the open letter to end statelessness:

Read more:

Fun Fact: Did you know that Albert Einstein was stateless for five years? He renounced his German citizenship in 1896, and afterwards became a Swiss citizen in 1901.

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