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The objective of ensuring the right to nationality for all is a challenge that combines technical, political and social considerations, from legal and administrative reform of citizenship policies to a broader expansion of a country’s understanding of which individuals and communities ‘belong’. Laws establishing the right to nationality at birth or to acquire it later in life necessarily distinguish between individuals who have a strong connection to the state concerned, sufficient to be recognized as citizens, and those who do not. Although international law continues to leave considerable discretion to states in this regard, the trend is clearly to limit the ability to deny nationality to individuals who have a strong connection to that state, especially (but not only) if they have no plausible claim to nationality elsewhere. So, while regulating nationality, citizenship and naturalization is a state’s sovereign right, under international law states must make sure that their nationality laws and procedure do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or caste and similar systems of inherited status. States should repeal or amend all such discriminatory laws and review the application of legislation and procedures to ensure that such discrimination does not occur in practice, even when laws are neutral.
There is now a relatively well-developed set of recommendations to tackle statelessness effectively, including the 10-point action plan of UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign. These range from improved birth registration and the issuance of nationality documents to all those entitled to them, to improved data collection and formal commitment to the international statelessness conventions. Solutions to resolve statelessness should address the needs of two broad categories of those affected: members of stateless minorities who are living in the country where they were born and grew up and where they have the strongest connections, and those who are stateless migrants and refugees.
Statelessness can affect individuals in any part of society, including members of majority communities, particularly among the very poor. Many of the steps that could be taken to end statelessness, such as improved birth registration, administrative processes and child protection systems, will help to reduce statelessness generally, and not only among ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities. Legal reform to remove gender discrimination in transmission of nationality and ensure nationality for children of unknown parents will also benefit members of any group. The introduction of even the minimum legal and procedural protections required by international law for those whose parents are stateless or of undetermined nationality, or who cannot acquire the nationality of one of their parents, will, however, especially benefit members of minority communities. Moreover, statelessness should be situated within a continuum of multiple forms of discrimination against certain minorities. Where states are introducing legal and administrative reforms to strengthen civil registration and nationality administration, an approach that particularly targets outreach to and inclusion of those communities known to be most at risk of exclusion will be the most effective route to reducing statelessness generally.
There are a number of ways that statelessness among minorities can be more effectively addressed, including:
Even in contexts where statelessness has been endemic and politically difficult to address, progress has been made in recent years. UNHCR advocacy, in support of national actors, has helped to ensure that a number of states have undertaken significant efforts to reduce statelessness among particular minorities:
Those affected by statelessness have themselves often organized to demand more rights and greater inclusion. Legal or paralegal assistance to those seeking to establish their nationality is often critical to challenge such discrimination. In Kenya, for example, the Nubian Rights Forum (NRF) assists members of the Nubian minority who are descendants of soldiers with the British colonial army and who have struggled to make their right to Kenyan citizenship a reality. Paralegals raise community awareness, mobilize people to apply for legal identity documents, assist community members with application forms and processes, and support clients throughout their cases. The NRF has begun to collaborate with grassroots organizations helping other minorities with the same challenges.
Some of the factors creating statelessness can affect individuals from any part of society, but often those most impacted are disproportionately members of minority communities. A greater focus on the reality of religious, ethnic and linguistic discrimination towards minorities can help improve understanding of how discrimination in other areas may ultimately extend to denial of citizenship and to statelessness. As the case of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority illustrates, this in turn can then expose them to further violations, up to and including violent expulsion from the country where they have the strongest connections, over many generations. A focus on ending discrimination may be as important as legal reform in resolving these cases. The first link in a chain of abuses is often the denial of the right to belong.
Photo: Aymara woman in Chile. Credit: Astro Now.