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Stateless people are found all over the world, in every region and every state. However, Asia and Africa are the two continents that host the largest number of stateless people. This is due to the widespread combination of weak systems of documentation, including low rates of birth registration, and laws and practices that discriminate in various ways or provide access to nationality only on the basis of descent: that is, only to a person who has at least one parent who is or was a national of the country. Where no rights at all to nationality are granted based on birth in a country, even over multiple generations, many are left at risk of statelessness.
Statelessness is ultimately an individual status: it is usually the case that not all members of a minority at risk of statelessness are in fact stateless, since slightly different accidents of birth or life history may mean that some will have been able to obtain recognition of their nationality. Equally, gaps in the legal framework can leave individuals at risk of statelessness within majority groups, especially children born of foreign fathers, or whose parents are unknown or who are separated from their parents. Other intersecting vulnerabilities, such as poverty, can also exacerbate the risk of statelessness.
Nevertheless, it is the case that minorities make up a large portion of the world’s stateless population, and in many cases face distinct barriers to securing recognition within their country. This is due in part to indirect discrimination: as marginalized communities, they are especially likely to struggle with lack of resources and limited access to official systems of registration – both issues that typically raise the risk of statelessness. However, the factors may also be much more direct. While statelessness may result from oversights or failings in a country’s legal and administrative systems, the persistence of stateless populations is often the direct result of discriminatory state policies. Sometimes these may be written into the law, but more often they are based on formal or informal practices that affect particular groups disproportionately. Communities that have been resident over many generations within the borders of a state may be presented in official discourse as ‘foreigners’ or ‘migrants’, to justify their exclusion from social and political integration.
One reason why members of certain minority groups are particularly vulnerable to statelessness is because national politics is closely intertwined with ethnicity, religion or language. In this context, unscrupulous leaders may use nationality law as a means to exclude communities from participation in the political arena. In Zimbabwe, for example, descendants of farmworkers brought to the country from neighbouring territories during the colonial period of British rule were for many years recognized as Zimbabwean. When an opposition party gained strength that they supported, large numbers were prevented from voting on the basis that they held nationality elsewhere and were therefore not Zimbabwean – but many were left stateless. In Côte d’Ivoire descendants of labourers imported by the French also came to be denied recognition as nationals, since to do so would upset the balance of electoral power. Therefore one of the most direct outcomes of statelessness is also often one of its main drivers – the exclusion of particular groups from voting.
Many of the most significant stateless populations, such as Myanmar’s Rohingya – who, numbering more than a million people, make up the single largest stateless population worldwide – have been left without citizenship as a direct result of discriminatory policies targeted against them. Groups that are particularly vulnerable to statelessness include:
Statelessness impacts in numerous, complex ways on individuals and communities who find themselves excluded from the rights and benefits of citizenship. At one extreme, in 2017 Myanmar dramatically escalated the use of violence against its Rohingya minority, resulting in massive displacement across the border with Bangladesh, in a campaign that a team of UN observers believed could amount to crimes against humanity. At the other end of the spectrum are the Russian-speaking populations of the Baltic states, especially in Estonia and Latvia, a legacy of the Soviet era. Though not recognized as citizens, they are legal residents and enjoy most of the rights of citizens, except the right to vote and stand for public office. In all contexts statelessness has significant negative impacts on a person’s ability to function as a full member of society.
Stateless people, like minorities in general, are amongst the most marginalized in any society. Besides being vulnerable to exploitation for dirty and dangerous work due to their lack of legal citizenship, they cannot organize to defend their rights because they are at risk of detention and deportation. At the same time, without a documented nationality, they may face severe difficulties in travelling and even struggle to seek asylum without legal documents – a situation that can leave them in a limbo while the state authorities seek to identify a country that is willing to recognize them as its own. Ironically, one of the reasons for rejection of refugee status may be that a person cannot prove their country of origin. Even outside the context of conflict or violence, lack of nationality documentation can leave both adults and children vulnerable to trafficking, as in the case of stateless minorities in Thailand.
Perhaps most importantly for day to day life, statelessness may mean that a person is denied a job, the opportunity to go to school, access to health care, even the right to an officially recognized marriage or to register the birth of children. In the Dominican Republic, despite the Constitution recognizing the right to education, Dominico-Haitian children may struggle to access schooling if they cannot provide documentation. As a result, they may find themselves excluded from the public education system. But there are also many capabilities associated with proof of nationality or identity – such as opening a bank account or buying a SIM card or mobile phone – that are not formally human rights, but without which it may be impossible to participate in contemporary society on equal terms.
While the impacts vary in form and intensity, from denial of voting rights and limited education opportunities to detention and targeted attacks, the effects are especially acute for minorities who may already struggle to secure their needs. In many cases, the assertion that members of a particular minority are not nationals provides an official pretext for states to ignore or persecute communities who, for political or social reasons, are regarded with suspicion by governments and the dominant ethnic, linguistic or religious groups. Stateless Roma in Europe, for example, face even greater obstacles in accessing their rights than other Roma, who are already often a denigrated minority.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that ‘Everyone has a right to a nationality’ and that ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality’. Most of the main human rights treaties adopted since that date include provisions aimed at ensuring respect for the right to a nationality, including in particular the almost universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). In addition, there are two international conventions that provide more specific guidance on the systems needed to protect stateless persons and end statelessness: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Photo: A child from the Akha hill tribe in Thailand. Credit: RIBI Image Library.