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Q&A - Why statelessness destroys lives

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 30 Aug 2011 10:11 GMT
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This story is part of an AlertNet special report on statelessness

LONDON (AlertNet) - Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Maureen Lynch, an expert on statelessness, explains the plight faced by people who have no country to call home.


What does being stateless mean?

Stateless individuals live and die as almost invisible people. According to the 1954 Convention, a stateless person is someone who has no legal tie to any government, which means they don’t have any of the protection or rights associated with citizenship.  It affects most rights we take for granted – an identity, basic education, access to health, freedom of movement, the right to own property, even something like a cell phone. It affects people across their entire life span.

Why has there been so little attention paid to stateless people?

It’s very hard to paint a mental image of statelessness. When you say the word ‘refugee’ we can picture it in our minds. But when you say the word ‘stateless,’ until you’ve met someone who is stateless, and even afterwards, it’s hard to get your mind around the concept and how it impacts a person’s life. And statelessness can be complicated. Many cases are just not so simple to solve. There may be elements of deeply ingrained discrimination, whether racial, religious or ethnic.

What stands out among the stateless people you have met?

One of the most painful things to witness in the case of statelessness is the way it denies a person the chance to develop. I’ve met people with untapped talents and amazing potential who want to help the country where they believe they are citizens. Being denied the ability to contribute, and seeing their life going to waste is one of the most disturbing things. It’s heart-wrenching actually because they could do so much for the global good.

One story that comes to mind is the denationalised Kurds in Syria.  One highly educated man I met hauls refrigerators on his back. A trained lawyer was selling tea on the street.  And a promising young athlete was forced to borrow a friend’s name and ID to compete.

What is available to protect them?

Each context is slightly different, but generally speaking there are not a lot of protections.

One of the challenges with statelessness is that these people don’t have a voice – particularly a political voice – because they are afraid of making their situation even worse. So they can’t even speak for themselves in a way we would find among other marginalised populations.

We saw in the case of Bangladesh, for example, that it took well into the third decade of the Bihari, or the Urdu speaking population, for the young people to be able to say, ‘this is where I was born, this is the language I learned to speak and this is my country.’ And they were able to find someone to represent them in court.

But in so many cases you can’t take nationality issues to the courts. That is the problem in Kuwait for the bedouns (stateless Arabs).

Which countries are you watching right now?

The UNHCR (U.N. refugee agency) is closely monitoring developments in Sudan to guard against a stateless situation arising following South Sudan’s independence.

The United States is also paying very close attention to this. The main concern is for individuals from the South living in the North. It could be that the North says, ‘you have your own country now, we’re not going to let you be nationals of this country.’

There’s also more attention being paid to statelessness in the United Kingdom because of what’s happening with failed asylum seekers who can’t be returned to the country they came from – either because that country refuses them as a national or for other reasons – so they are left de facto stateless.

What should governments be doing?

Governments must uphold the nationality rights of everyone – to recognise citizenship in cases where it should be recognised, and at least as a minimum to evaluate cases where it is unclear.

They must also work towards gender equality in nationality laws – that’s another huge one. In many countries women can’t pass on their nationality to their children. Governments must also ensure birth registration of all children. That not only reduces statelessness, it’s also a means of prevention.

What else must be done?

Governments must ensure access to education for all people, including stateless people.

We should also pay particular attention to trafficking. People can either be trafficked because they are stateless, or become stateless because they are trafficked.

Detention is another issue that is often overlooked. People who are stateless and detained are doubly invisible. They have even less of a voice. Very little is known about their situation. I don’t think anyone has an estimate as to how many are behind bars. That’s part of the problem. And there is almost no one focusing on that.

Which cases of statelessness are the most pressing?

It’s very difficult to put one group in front of another. Because statelessness affects different populations in different ways, it’s very hard to compare. Large stateless groups such as the Rohinyga certainly warrant special attention, as do groups like the Kuwaiti bedoun who can’t take their case to the court. We have an extra responsibility to work on their behalf.

As told to Emma Batha.

Maureen Lynch is affiliated to the International Observatory on Statelessness. Previously she was Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives at Refugees International.

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