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Millions Are Stateless, Living in Legal Limbo

By The Citizen Correspondent
What do Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel, both Nobel laureates in literature, have in common?
All had been stateless during part of their lives.
Up to 12 million people in the world are stateless. While their families may have lived for generations in a particular country, on paper they don’t exist anywhere. They are people without a nationality.
Stateless people are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, health care and pensions. They may not be able to own property, open a bank account, get married legally or register the birth of a child. Some face long periods of detention, because they cannot prove who they are or where they are from.  

 “It is the worst possible thing to happen to a human being. It means you are a non-entity, you don’t exist, and you count for nothing. Everybody should feel that they can realize their dreams in the future,’’ says a Nubian elder in Kibera slums Kenya.

The Nubians have lived in Kenya for ages since the pre-independence construction of the railway line but authorities in the country have often denied them IDs for identification as citizens.

“Stateless people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo,” says António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world. Without addressing statelessness and making efforts to prevent it, the problem becomes self-perpetuating because stateless parents cannot pass a nationality to their children. Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalizing whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict,” he says.

The UNHCR, the UN organization mandated with helping stateless people, finds that the scale of the problem fluctuates over the years, with improvements in some regions offset by new problems in others.

The large numbers at the beginning of the 1990s were gradually reduced as the successor states to the Soviet Union granted citizenship to several hundreds of thousands of people, but the numbers increased again with developments in other parts of the world.

While the full scope of statelessness across the globe is only just becoming known, UNHCR has found that the problem is particularly acute in South East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and various countries in Africa, with pockets of stateless people throughout the world.  Because most of the countries of Latin America grant citizenship to all born on their territory, that region has the lowest incidence of people with no nationality.

Countries with the greatest numbers of stateless people, for which estimates are known, are Estonia, Iraq, Kenya, Latvia, Myanmar, Nepal, Syria and Thailand.

“Putting precise figures on the numbers of stateless people is inherently difficult because few countries have procedures to identify the stateless,” explains Mark Manly, UNHCR’s chief expert on statelessness. UNHCR estimates are based on census counts, surveys and other sources, including government estimates.

“All I want is to have a green light to get a job, something I’m qualified for. I want to provide for my family. To be stateless just demonizes me. It takes the human out of me and makes me feel I have no value at all,” lamented one Mohammed, stateless in the United States for 25 years.

He managed to go to college, and speaks five languages. The United States has proposed legislation to provide a legal status to stateless people. If adopted, the new legislation will mark the first time that the rights of the stateless have been addressed in the US.

Why People Become Stateless

Statelessness has several causes, some easier to fix than others.

State Secession.  In the early 1990s, more than half of the world’s stateless lost their nationality because of the break-up of states. The turbulent dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Federation caused internal and external migration that left hundreds of thousands stateless throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Twenty years later, tens of thousands of people in the region remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.
Abandonment after the post-colonial formation of a state is another cause of statelessness.  Large populations have remained without citizenship for decades as a result of such state-building processes in Africa and Asia.

Complex Laws. Although international law places limits on the powers of states to give nationality, states do have the right to determine whom they consider to be a citizen. They have adopted a wide range of approaches. With this complex international maze of citizenship laws, many people find that they fall through the cracks. In some countries, citizenship is lost automatically after prolonged residence in another country.

Simple Obstacles. Failure or inability to register children at birth, a pervasive problem in many developing countries, leaves many children without proof of where they were born, who their parents were or where their parents were from.  Not having a birth certificate does not automatically indicate the lack of citizenship, but in many countries, and in today’s increasingly mobile world of migrants, not having proof of birth, origins or legal identity increases the risk of statelessness.

Discrimination against Women. While a number of countries in sub-Saharan and North Africa, the Middle East and Asia have started to reform legislation to address this, in at least 30 countries only men can pass their citizenship on to their children. The children of women from these countries who marry foreigners can end up stateless.

Racial and Ethnic Discrimination. An underlying theme of most situations of statelessness is ethnic and racial discrimination that leads to exclusion, where political will is often lacking to resolve the problem. Via decree, Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein stripped the Faili Kurds of their Iraqi citizenship in one day (in 1980).
While most Roma and other minority groups do have citizenship of the countries where they live, thousands continue to be stateless in Europe. Since states gained independence or boundaries were established, groups such as the Muslim residents (Rohingya) of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand, the Bidoon in the Gulf States and various nomadic groups have been excluded from citizenship in the only countries they have lived in for generations.

Often, such groups have become so marginalized that even when legislation changes to grant access to citizenship, they encounter huge obstacles and bureaucratic red tape. Often the cost of actually obtaining citizenship and documentation is almost insurmountable.
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