Statelessness & other international issues

In looking at the causes and impact of statelessness, the intersection between statelessness and a range of other international concerns - human rights, displacement, development - already starts to emerge. Given that statelessness, as a stand-alone issue, has not received the same kind of attention as many other international challenges to date, it is helpful to understand these links as a way to demonstrate how addressing statelessness can contribute to solving other problems – and vice versa. Here are some brief reflections on the links between statelessness and other international concerns.

If human rights matter...

The contemporary human rights framework is premised on notions of equality, liberty, dignity and universality: we all hold basic rights because we are human beings. But the human rights system also recognises that states may reserve some rights for their citizens, such as the right to vote or be elected, placing these out of reach for stateless people. And in practice, statelessness is a proven barrier to the exercise a wide range of other rights. So the very universality of human rights rests on the premise that everyone enjoys a nationality – laid down, for that reason, as a right in most major human rights instruments. Until statelessness is eradicated, the fundamental aspiration of universal human rights remains just that, an aspiration. So, if human rights matter, statelessness matters. Read more about human rights and statelessness here.

If people matter...

Stateless persons are among the world’s most vulnerable. They are seen and treated as foreigners by every country in the world, including the country in which they were born, the country of their ancestors, the country of their residence, the country they happen to find themselves in today and any country they may find themselves expelled to tomorrow. Stateless persons face an extreme form of exclusion that impacts their sense of dignity and identity, as well as their ability to do all sorts of everyday things that most of us take for granted, like go to school, get a job, be treated by a doctor, get married or travel. So, if people matter, statelessness matters.

If children matter...

Many of the world’s stateless persons are children. In fact, in every region of the world, children continue to be born into statelessness and grow up never knowing the protection and recognition that comes with a nationality. Some children inherit their statelessness from stateless parents, creating an intergenerational problem. Others aren’t able to acquire their parents’ or any other nationality due to discriminatory laws and policies or the failure of governments to implement simple legal safeguards that prevent childhood statelessness. Without a nationality, children can have difficulty exercising their rights, become outcasts in their own country, struggle to feel like they belong and grow up to be disenfranchised and excluded adults. So, if children matter, statelessness matters.

If development matters...

Difficulties accessing education and employment; restricted property rights; lack of opportunities to own or register a business; limited access to a bank account or a loan; and, in some cases, the threat of extortion, detention or expulsion; these factors can trap stateless persons in poverty and make it extremely challenging for them to improve their circumstances. Where statelessness affects whole communities over several successive generations – as it often sadly does – such communities can be neglected by development actors and processes. Statelessness means a waste, of individual potential, of human capital and of development opportunities. So, if development matters, statelessness matters.

If democracy matters...

Nationality is the gateway to political participation. Stateless persons have no right to vote, stand for election or effect change through regular political channels. Their statelessness suppresses their voices and renders their opinions obsolete. In countries with large stateless populations, whole sectors of the constituency are disenfranchised. Elsewhere, statelessness is a tool in the arsenal of those who would seek to manipulate the democratic process, with deprivation of nationality a means of silencing the opposition. To ensure a level and inclusive democratic playing field, stateless persons must also be heard. So, if democracy matters, statelessness matters.

If addressing displacement matters...

Statelessness is a recognised root cause of forced displacement, with stateless persons fleeing their homes and often countries in order to find protection elsewhere. Preventing cases of statelessness is vital for the prevention of refugee flows – a link that has been a key motivation for UNHCR to further operationalise its statelessness mandate and now call to end statelessness. Addressing nationality disputes and tackling statelessness where it arises can also be a key tool in resolving existing refugee situations because it can pave the way for successful voluntary repatriation and reintegration. So, if addressing displacement matters, statelessness matters.

If peace and security matter...

The vulnerability, exclusion, despair, frustration and sometimes persecution experienced by stateless persons can spark other problems. Casting a group as “others” or “outsiders” by denying them access to nationality – in spite of clear and lasting ties to the country – can contribute to attitudes of suspicion and discrimination. This can cause a dangerous build-up of tension within and between communities that may lead to conflict. Disputes surrounding nationality, membership, belonging and entitlement can also hamper peace-building efforts. So, if peace and security matter, statelessness matters.

If size matters...

Many millions of people are affected by statelessness around the world today. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million stateless persons under its mandate and if stateless refugees and stateless Palestinians under UN Relief and Works Agency mandate are added to this tally, the figure is higher still. This means that there are enough stateless persons to create a medium-sized country (although this is not suggested as a solution). Moreover, these numbers do not include the many more who feel the impact of statelessness, for instance because a close family member lacks any nationality. So, if size matters, statelessness matters.