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Statelessness Impacts and Issues


Statelessness is the absence of nationality. There are three forms of statelessness: an absence of de sure nationality (meaning no nation has expressly given nationality to the individual); diplomatic statelessness (meaning a person does have a nationality but his or her nation has not diplomatically protected the individual from having rights stripped away by another nation); and effective (or de facto) statelessness (meaning a person has a nationality but he or she has no rights in that nation). Without a recognized nationality, stateless people typically have difficulty attaining the fundamental rights, opportunities, and aid afforded to those who are citizens of one or multiple countries.

The reasons for statelessness include institutional failure to register births, laws designed to deny citizenship to minority groups, laws that prevent women from passing on citizenship to their children, civil war, forced displacement, nomadism, and the reserve domain. The latter is a nation’s internationally protected right to decide who are its citizens.

The forcible movement from one place or position to another.
The movement of people out of the region in which they live because of conflict, natural disasters, human-made disasters, or development projects.
A person who is displaced from his or her country or region of birth as a result of persecution or violence, often stemming from religious or political conflict or natural disaster

Without the protections of state institutions, stateless people are especially vulnerable to exploitation by employers, to human traffickers, to the creation of new states that exclude them from citizenship, and to forced migration. According to data compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were more than 10 million stateless people worldwide in 2014. However, the UNHCR acknowledged that many de jure stateless people had not been identified and estimated a total closer to 12 million. Since its founding after World War II (1939–1945), the United Nations (UN) has led efforts to respond to challenges with the world’s stateless community, including the disproportionate affect it has on women and children. While these efforts have helped provide legal protection and assistance to those without national citizenship, statelessness persists and, according to some estimates, continues to grow as violence and upheaval in certain countries force large numbers of people to become refugees.

Historical Background

As William E. Conklin points out in Statelessness: The Enigma of the International Community (2014), statelessness has been an issue since at least the 6th century BCE, when Jews were expelled from their home in Babylon and became stateless people in exile. However, the modern conception of statelessness did not emerge until the 18th century, when nation-states in Europe “came to possess the sole legal authority to confer, withdraw or withhold nationality from any natural person under its control,” according to Conklin. Once states assumed this power to grant citizenship, people without such citizenship began to emerge. However, while the world was increasingly organized into nations during the 19th century, it was not until the creation of new states and the drawing of new borders after World War I (1914–1918) that the issue of statelessness came to the fore.

As old empires fell and new nations were formed, large numbers of people were lost in the shuffle without citizenship. In response, the League of Nations, an international organization that preceded the United Nations, developed the first protocols for stateless people in 1930. According to these protocols, children would be granted the citizenship of their mothers, and countries were required to readmit anyone who had previously held citizenship there. Although the principles embodied in these protocols have endured, the protocols themselves had little effect due to the League of Nations’ limited power over member states.

World War II was another major catalyst for the creation of stateless people, many of them Jews and other refugees fleeing persecution, instability, and execution at the hands of Germany’s Nazi regime and its fascist allies around the world. To address the number of Jewish stateless refugees after the war, the UN provided for the creation of a Jewish state in 1947 from what had been the British-held nation of Palestine. The UN attempted to partition Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, yet the existing Arab population resisted this arrangement. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the new State of Israel controlled not only the land designated by the UN for a Jewish state but also much of the land provided for Palestinians. As a result, more than 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from their homeland and became stateless.

In response to the growth in stateless populations after the war, the UN, which was founded the same year World War II ended, created the Ad Hoc Committee on Statelessness and Related Problems in 1949. Among the committee’s mandates was a call to “consider means of eliminating the problem of statelessness.” The first product of the committee’s work came in 1954, with the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The convention defined stateless people (those who are “not recognized as a national by any state under the operation of its law”) and granted stateless people rights to such basics as identity, travel documents, education, housing, and employment. However, only 57 countries, not including the United States, signed this convention, undermining its effectiveness. Seven years later, in 1961, 29 countries signed the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which included numerous provisions designed to ensure citizenship for all but was of limited effectiveness, too, due to the small number of signatories.

Impacts and Issues

Although these UN conventions and the work of advocacy groups brought increasing attention to the problem of statelessness during the second half of the 20th century, new populations of stateless people continued to emerge. Among the foremost causes of statelessness has been war, which has created massive refugee populations throughout the world. For example, the civil war in Syria that began in 2011 had created some 5 million refugees by February 2017, according to the UNHCR. Many of these refugees left Syria without proper paperwork certifying their citizenship, leaving them stateless unless they were granted citizenship elsewhere or were able to eventually return home after the war.

Another major cause of statelessness is forced displacement, which has meant the purging of certain ethnic or other groups from various countries. Examples of forced displacement can be found in millions of stateless Palestinian people and in the Rohingya people, who have been persecuted, denied citizenship, and forced from Myanmar (Burma). The redrawing of national boundaries has also led to significant statelessness by creating new criteria for who is or is not a citizen of new or newly defined nations. One example of this can be found in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which fractured into numerous new nation-states but left a population of some 600,000 stateless people as of 2014, according to the UNHCR. In the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Estonia, for example, Russian-speaking minorities were denied citizenship after these nations achieved independence.

Migrant populations, such as the Roma people, have often been left stateless by countries that refuse to grant them citizenship, even if they were born there. Statelessness is also created as a result of issues with how countries confer citizenship on newborn babies, which can mean that the children of unwed, widowed, or undocumented mothers are not granted citizenship. In Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, for example, only men can pass citizenship to their offspring, meaning the children of women whose husbands have died or are otherwise not present are left stateless. Administrative inefficiencies can lead to births not being registered and citizenship not being granted. The UNHCR reported that, in large part because failure to grant citizenship so often occurs at birth, more than a third of the world’s stateless people were children in 2014.

In 2014 the UN launched the Global Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 Years, which aimed both to help those existing “marginalized, invisible” people without citizenship achieve naturalization and to prevent the creation of new stateless people. Composed of 10 sweeping actions, such as to “resolve existing major situations of statelessness” and “ensure that no child is born stateless,” this campaign has had difficulty stemming the tide of statelessness and its deleterious effects. According to a 2016 article by Jennifer Guay in Foreign Policy, one of the most “debilitating (and rarely acknowledged) effects of statelessness is chronic economic instability. Without the legal right to work, the stateless find few avenues for upward mobility, leaving generation after generation to toil in poverty and obscurity—at the expense of both individuals and the states that host them.” Pointing to examples of stateless people being prone to such indignities as unpaid military conscription, human trafficking, and prostitution, Guay notes that the stateless “suffer widespread societal discrimination that limits their ability to find stable employment.”

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