It’s time to end statelessness once and for all

I’ve spent much time in recent weeks talking about the global refugee crisis. It’s an enormous challenge for humanity that will only intensify in the coming years, as the climate breakdown, extreme weather events, resource depletion, unrest and armed conflict form a vicious cycle that is likely to drive millions more from their homes and out of their countries. 

A beach in the port town of Mahajanga, Madagascar where some of the early Karana community settled from India, displays the words of UNHCR's #IBelong campaign, highlighting global statelesness.

The human suffering of over 70 million displaced people around the world is shocking, but millions face an associated problem that is often overlooked: statelessness. In simple terms, stateless people are those not considered nationals by any country. As a result, they are denied citizenship, national identity documents and often do not enjoy any of the rights available to their neighbours. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless due to a variety of factors, including discrimination against certain ethnic or religious groups, or on the basis of gender. 

Amal Al Mohamad and her children Rama Al Ali (9) and Rafic el Halili Al Ali. Rama Al Ali (9) is stateless. She has no nationality because her father is also stateless and under Lebanese law her mother cannot give her Lebanese nationality to Rama.

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, statelessness affects many millions of people around the world. The exact number is hard to assess as most countries do not report on stateless people within their jurisdiction, but we do know that there are at least 3.9 million known stateless people in 78 countries. The true global figure is estimated to be significantly higher.

In Myanmar, for instance, the government has since 1982 explicitly denied citizenship to its Muslim Rohingya minority – at least one million people. This continued denial of their national identity, coupled with aggressive propaganda, enabled decades of discrimination, marginalisation, hate and violence that killed thousands and ultimately drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighbouring countries. But statelessness is a truly global challenge, present from the Caribbean to Europe, from Central Asia to Africa. 

I first became aware of the awful consequences of statelessness when a friend drew my attention to the plight of a young girl of Haitian descent born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Widlene Earle is among an estimated 150,000 stateless persons of Haitian descent in the DR who are literally stranded, as the Dominican government cannot or will not issue identity documents, and as Haiti does not recognise them as Haitians.

Widlene

Having been adopted by a loving and caring Canadian couple, Widlene and her adoptive parents now can’t even leave the DR, as that would require travel documents the 14-year old student cannot obtain. There’s no doubt that statelessness is often the epitome of a catch-22. But Widlene isn’t giving up. She has made is her life's goal to end statelessness globally, and who better to do it than someone who has lived it?

Widlene with Dad and her new brother, Luther.

How can the problem be tackled? Well, governments are in the driver’s seat, and while some progress has been made in the last 20-25 years, the standards that prevent and reduce statelessness are not implemented nearly as well as they ought to be. I was heartened to see that Kyrgyzstan has recently become the world’s first country to end statelessness, thanks in good part to the tireless work of Azizbek Ashurov, whose organisation Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB) has helped over 10,000 people to gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Azizbek has rightly been honoured with UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, but the world needs more advocates and champions like Azizbek to put on a global end statelessness globally. 

UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign, launched in 2014, is a good start. It asks governments to give everyone a nationality by 2030 and to ensure that future generations cannot become stateless.  

From my vantage point, it’s difficult to imagine how any country can maximise its potential by ignoring significant populations of stateless people. I think businesses and their leaders also have a role to play, by helping states see the value and the contribution of other people. In political terms, continued and growing statelessness is a ticking time bomb. But the optimist in me tries to see the upside: when given an identity, a sense of belonging, people will be able to fulfil their true potential. They will learn, train, work, and contribute to the wellbeing, stability and prosperity of any society. 

Widlene and her baby brother

No one should have to suffer the indignity and exclusion that comes with being stateless. Fortunately, over a hundred states have come together in Geneva this week to commit to do more to put an end to statelessness once and for all. They’re being joined by civil society groups and international organisations that are also committed to a world in which no one is left behind, and everyone has the right to say “I belong”. 

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