2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

The Issue of Stateless People in Our Modern World

By Jessica Townley

The rise of the nation-state and the trend of nationality has gripped the modern world, most notably in unifying groups of people native to certain territories. The concept of statelessness is that a person is to “not be considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”, as described under international law. 

Sometimes stateless people are refugees; sometimes not.

Elbert Einstein is a key example of a stateless person, giving up his German citizenship from 1896 to 1901. His story is one of success, as he was able to gain Swiss citizenship. Many cases do not end so well.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri has been stateless since 1977, after openly speaking out against the Iranian government. Whilst travelling as a refugee to Britain, his documents were stolen during a layover in Charles de Gaulle airport, wherein he lived for eighteen years. He was only able to leave in 2006, after being rushed to hospital for medical reasons. 

According to the UNHCR, many stateless people are undocumented and unregistered, which makes it hard to accurately depict the actual amount of people who have no national identity. They estimate that, in 2014, at least ten million people were living without any nationality. 

So, how is it that a person loses all their national identity and is left as a stateless individual?

A person can be granted citizenship either with “right of the soil”, jus soli, or “right of the blood”; jus sanguinis. A person can be granted citizenship if they were born on the land of the state they require citizenship, or if a person’s parents originate from the country. This criteria differs from country to country.

As of 2019, 25 countries do not allow for a mother to pass on nationality and citizenship to their children, such as in Iran or Qatar. This can partially explain that over one-third of all stateless people are children.

Others can become stateless in the transition of territory or emergence of new states. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and 600,000 people remain stateless. This is the same case for over 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis who were denied citizenship by the government of Bangladesh with its 1971 independence.

Statelessness can also occur due to discrimination, as seen with the Rohingya people in Burma/Myanmar. These people were denied nationality under the 1982 citizenship law, despite having been present in Myanmar since the 8th century. This has led to over 900,000 people in the Rakhine state of Myanmar becoming stateless.

The issue of statelessness is a current one, with the UNHCR having four years left in their ten-year plan to end this crisis. It can also be seen in Western countries, such as in the forced deportation of Mexican migrants in the United States. This, coupled with there being no definition of statelessness under current U.S. law and no protections for stateless people, is fuelling this crisis. According to a UNHCR report listed below, between 2009 and 2011 the U.S. government released 10,000 deportees after their countries of origin refused to take them back; leaving them with no legal status in the U.S. and in their own countries unwilling to grant them legal status, they can be seen as stateless. 

The UNHCR’s 10-year plan has goals such as to encourage states to change laws that allow for statelessness to become widespread. The pushing of reform through international pressure can be seen to ease this crisis. They aim to do this by ensuring no child is born stateless (i.e. with correct documentation) or the granting of protection laws to stateless migrants. 

The rise of nationalism, immigration laws and alienation of certain groups can lead to an increase in stateless individuals. We do not currently know the exact amount of people who are stateless. Hopefully, the international pressure against countries that allow people to become/are already stateless will lead to movement forward. For now, all we can do is wait for 2024 and the UNHCR’s ten-year report and keep the conversation alive.

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