By Arja Oomkens -
Exactly one year ago, UNHCR launched a global campaign aimed at ending statelessness, a phenomenon that is often described as a “devastating legal limbo”. But what is statelessness exactly, and why is it so important to combat its consequences? The UNHCR report that came out yesterday explains the debilitating impact of statelessness on children. Today, I will use this report as a starting point to provide a bird’s eye view of the issues surrounding statelessness. How is it possible that this phenomenon excludes millions of people worldwide from a dignified and humane life?
The story of Rashid forms an illustrative example. Rashid, 27, was born in Maungdaw, Myanmar. He is a Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has faced decades of segregation. Since the 1970s, the Rohingya have been deprived of their citizenship, restricted in their movements, and have suffered en masse persecution. Rashid fled to Bangladesh with his mother, after his father, who was a Muslim rights activist, was killed and his sister was arrested. Because of a legitimate fear of persecution, and because he was explicitly deprived of his citizenship in Myanmar, Rashid could not go back to his home country when his temporary legal stay in Bangladesh expired. Therefore, he moved to the Netherlands to seek protection. He applied for asylum twice, but both of his requests were rejected.
As a result, Rashid is stuck in the Netherlands. On the one hand he is an illegal resident, while on the other hand, he cannot be expelled because neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar will accept him. Without a state to take responsibility for him, he lacks access to health care, education, employment opportunities, property rights and the ability to freely move around across borders. It is also impossible to get married, open a bank account or get a driving license. Unlike many others, Rashid cannot take these rights for granted.
Statelessness, as famously described by Hannah Arendt (2004), means the loss of the “right to have rights”. As the example of Rashid illustrates, stateless people lack the social and economic access necessary to fulfill their most basic human needs. Worse still, in the words of António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime”. Without citizenship rights, and no state to protect them, they are forced into a life of invisibility.
One can become stateless for a myriad of reasons. First of all, people may become stateless with the dissolution and separation of states. For example, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 left large numbers of people stateless. Of these people, over 370,000 people still lack a nationality in Estonia and Latvia. Another reason for becoming stateless is because of conflicts of nationality laws between certain countries, which may cause statelessness at birth or later in life. This happens when, for example, two states claim that the other is responsible for the bestowment of a nationality. In addition, people are forced into statelessness as a direct result of discrimination (e.g. against women or other specific ethnic groups). The 1,2 million stateless Rohingya in Myanmar are a case in point of ethnic discrimination and the categorical denial of citizenship.
The relatively unknown concept of statelessness affects at least 10 million people worldwide – a number that excludes many people who might hold formal citizenship but are prevented from enjoying citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this number is expanding continuously; UNHCR estimates that one stateless baby is born every ten minutes. In addition, the conflict in Syria further exacerbates the problem. The mass displacement of four million refugees into neighboring countries places children at great risk of statelessness. For Syrians abroad, the possibility to register newborns is limited. Because most Syrians flee from the persecution by their own government, it is implausible that they will register a newborn in a Syrian embassy. Within the borders of Syria, discriminatory nationality laws ensure that Syrian children can only acquire nationality through their fathers. Since the conflict has left 25 per cent of Syrian households fatherless, this gender discrimination causes registration at birth to be an unattainable goal for many.
The global campaign launched by UNHCR last year aims to intensify efforts to end statelessness within ten years. The campaign was launched in light of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which, alongside the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, is to provide the international legal basis to end statelessness. With the campaign, UNHCR calls on nations to take on 10 actions to end statelessness.
During its first year, the campaign focused on ending childhood statelessness. The UNHCR report that came out today urges all states to allow children to gain the nationality of the country in which they are born if they would otherwise be stateless; to reform laws that prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers; eliminate laws and practices that deny children nationality because of their ethnicity, race or religion; and ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness. Because issues surrounding statelessness are often felt first during childhood, the report thereby aims to address the core of the problem.
There are three reasons why states are expected to cooperate. First, the two Statelessness Conventions require governments that have ratified to provide a minimum set of human rights (1954), and to reduce statelessness (1961). Second, international law recognizes the right of every child to a nationality; this is set out in Article 7 of the almost universally ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Third, state cooperation is expected not only to be in the child’s best interests, but also in the interest of the state since the right to education, health, and work will contribute to the integration and social cohesion of any society.
With regard to those who have become stateless as a result of the Syrian conflict, the Jordanian government has already set a good example. To ensure that every child begins life with a birth certificate – which serves as proof of identity and a direct link to Syria – the Jordanian government established a personal status court and civil status department within the Zaatari refugee camp. In light of these developments, 3,597 Syrian children born in this camp have been registered over the past two years.
The UNHCR campaign has received a great deal of international attention, and has even culminated in thorough cooperation with civil society initiatives – see for example the recent report by the European Network on Statelessness. Hopefully, these efforts will have a positive impact on the millions of stateless people worldwide. For Rashid, and many others like him, there has only been the promise of the establishment of a statelessness determination procedure in the Netherlands. Because the Dutch government is a state party to the two Statelessness conventions, the recognition of Rashid as a stateless person means that he is entitled to a secure legal status and enjoyment of the rights afforded under these conventions, such as the right to education, employment, and housing. Furthermore, the recognition of Rashid as a stateless person would mean that he has the right to an identity document under article 27 of the 1954 Convention. This is of great importance, because carrying identification is mandatory at all times in the Netherlands (since 2004). At this moment, stateless persons are often unable to meet this requirement, and, without being able to identify themselves, they risk arbitrary detention. Therefore, to ensure that he is not left invisible – without equal rights and any sense of human dignity – it is imperative that the Netherlands will follow up on its promise to develop the long-awaited procedure to determine statelessness, including a procedure to provide ID documents for stateless persons.
Overall, the situation of Rashid in the Netherlands illustrates how pressing the need is to address the plight of stateless people worldwide. Not only the Netherlands, but all state parties to the 1954 and 1961 Convention must follow up on their obligations under these conventions. If states would do so, UNHCR’s global campaign to end statelessness within ten years may suddenly become a feasible goal.