Published on 21st Feb, 2022
Millions of people worldwide are being rendered “invisible” by the rising problem of statelessness.
A discussion co-hosted by SCI, the Ariadne donor network and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) heard that those deprived of a nationality are also then frequently barred from accessing a wide range of basic rights.
The webinar attracted participants from more than 13 countries and heard powerful testimony from two people whose lives are directly affected by statelessness.
ISI says that “there are more than 15 million people across the globe who face a life without a nationality and every ten minutes, another child is born stateless”.
The event heard from:
- Ali Johar, a Rohingya refugee activist currently based in India.
- Caia Vlieks, ISI’s Research and Education Officer.
- Anna Shea of the Sigrid Rausing Trust.
- Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough co-founder of United Stateless
Caia Vlieks of ISI said: “Nationality is a key concept in all of this. It is through our nationality that we have tended to organise ourselves as human beings [but] millions of people are without any nationality today.
“The technical, legal definition of a stateless person is a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.”
Stateless people face barriers in accessing basic national and international rights, which can affect every aspect of their lives, from education, employment, to buying a house, securing birth certificates or even a death certificate.
Caia explained that its main cause is discrimination, often in circumstances where ethnic or religious minorities are deprived of nationality as a way to exclude them from society. In 25 countries, gender-based discrimination in nationality laws prevents women from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men.
The rise of extremism, xenophobia and conflict has also fuelled the rise of statelessness.
'An invisible person'
But while this can deny rights to entire groups of people, Ali Johar gave a powerful account of how it has personally affected him, as one of the huge number of Rohingya refugees forced from Myanmar.
“I remember the day our family crossed the Naf River which is the nearest Myanmar-Bangladesh border from our township. While on the fishing boat, I was crying for my beloved dog and my school bag. My dad gave me a 20 taka bill to silence me.
“I knew we were leaving our home but I didn’t realise that moment was going to change my identity for the rest of my life, leaving me to face treatment as a different person in addition to the discrimination I was already facing in Myanmar.
“Later I realised I have been rendered as stateless. This pushes me further and makes me an invisible person when it comes to the rights and dignity as a human being I am entitled to.”
Karina detailed her own experience saying: “As Ali said, we look like regular people. I know I look like the average millennial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the US. But I have this huge issue hanging over my head that has pretty much controlled every aspect of my life.
“I became stateless sometime between the ages of four and eight. I am of Armenian and Ukrainian ethnicity. I was born in the former Soviet Union in 1988.”
Her parents’ mixed ethnicity and the tensions surrounding that, contributed to them emigrating to the US.
“Ukraine becoming independent, passed nationality laws that didn’t include me. We discovered that ten years later when our asylum claim was denied in the US. I was 13 years old.’
She added: ‘There is nothing to prove that I am, who I am.’
Official figures suggest 218,000 people in the US are stateless, but United Stateless - the only organization in the US founded and led by stateless people and dedicated to ending statelessness - believes the figure is higher.
“The time is now,” Karina said to secure significant governmental reform and to support advocacy by those directly affected by statelessness.
Anna Shea of the Sigrid Rausing Trust said statelessness was “one of the most fundamental human rights issues of our time”.
Anna said the number affected was growing and statelessness was being used as a tool of control and exclusion.
“Statelessness is a human rights issue in two senses,” she said.
“It is caused by human rights violations and discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender etc.
“And it’s also the cause of human rights violations. Karina and Ali have described how it overshadows many, many aspects of their lives.”
'Paying more attention'
The discussion heard calls for greater global collaboration between activists and funders on issues linked to statelessness.
This included the need to support pathways to citizenship, as well as access to basic rights such as healthcare and education.
Director of the Ariadne Network Julie Broome echoed calls for a greater focus on statelessness.
“I think there is a very strong argument here for why human rights organisations and human rights funders need to be thinking about this more, paying attention. It definitely connects to so many different aspects of funding portfolios.”
Julie thanked Ali and Karina for sharing their very moving personal stories.
She concluded: “ In addition to having an understanding of the theoretical side of this, we now really have a deeper reflection on both the practical and the emotional impacts of statelessness.”
- Watch the discussion in full:
- European Network on Statelessness: www.statelessness.eu
- From evaluation to implementation – Casting a constructively critical eye over UNHCR’s statelessness work: https://www.statelessness.eu/updates/editorial/evaluation-implementation-casting-constructively-critical-eye-over-unhcrs
- The Statelessness Index: https://index.statelessness.eu/
- The Statelessness Journeys initiative: https://statelessjourneys.org/
- Failure to Protect: The Denial of Status, Detention and Refoulement of Rohingya Refugees in India: https://files.institutesi.org/Rohingya_Refugees_in_India_Brieifing_Paper.pdf