Image: © UNHCR / Alimzhan Zhorobaev

Tendayi Bloom, a politics and international studies lecturer at The Open University, discusses what it means to be ‘stateless’ and how it can drive people to migrate and alter the nature of migration.

Statelessness need not have anything to do with crossing borders but it is essential to consider in the context of the global compact for migration.

Statelessness has been described as ‘rooted displacement’ or ‘displacement in situ’ because it effectively makes a person displaced wherever they are. Paragraph 72 of the New York Declaration, the outcome document from the summit addressing large movements of migrants and refugees, affirms:

‘We recognize that statelessness can be a root cause of forced displacement and that forced displacement, in turn, can lead to statelessness. We take note of the campaign of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to end statelessness within a decade and we encourage States to consider actions they could take to reduce the incidence of statelessness. We encourage those States that have not yet acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to consider doing so.’

According to Article 1 of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a stateless person is ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’. It is hard to know how many people this affects.

In 2016 the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimated that 10 million people were stateless, while in 2017 the NGO ISI estimates the number is closer to 15 million, though both acknowledge that these are conservative estimates. There are some key ways in which the global compact needs to take statelessness into account.

Statelessness can drive people to migrate and alter the nature of migration
Stateless persons can find themselves excluded from all key state institutions such as: the regular labour market, health services, property-ownership, education or recognition of educational accomplishments, civil registration, social security, and even the protection of the law. This means for example that a stateless person may be unable to work legally anywhere on earth.

Statelessness can be caused by discrimination and persecution. It can also be associated with heightened persecution, including extremes of violence, even so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ as is the case for Rohingya people living in Myanmar today.

Most stateless persons may find crossing international borders difficult or impossible. There is no globally agreed mechanism for a stateless person to migrate in a safe, legal and orderly way. They may have to seek out smugglers or bribe local officials in order to travel. This puts individuals at risk (and some stateless populations acutely so) of trafficking (see also UNODC toolkit). Stateless persons are also affected by administrative detention, often ‘pending deportation’. However, without any place to which to be deported, the detention risks being indefinite and arbitrary (e.g. see ENS reports and toolkits and #LockedInLimbo campaign letter).

A person may be driven by statelessness to seek better conditions overseas. For example, Ramadan, abandoned at birth in Macedonia, could not establish his citizenship. Unable to study or to see a future where he was, he travelled to Italy. But in Italy he is still stateless and has been unable to work or to register his marriage or the birth of his children. He is at constant fear of detention.

Statelessness can also alter the nature of migration when it occurs overseas, whether or not the movement was forced. Consider Daniela’s parents, Cuban citizens, who only intended to live in South Africa for a couple of years on temporary worker contracts. Unable to secure any citizenship for their daughter, born in South Africa, the family have been stuck there.

Daniela is now eight and still has no citizenship, so the family is unable to return home.

An adult can become stateless at home or while overseas as a result of colonisation, decolonisation and secession, when a new State is created or a State ceases to exist, or because of discrimination or other changes in law. Recent developments in a number of states risk that a person might have their only citizenship removed while they are abroad (e.g. BahrainTurkey, the UK). This is illegal under international law. And it not only interrupts that persons’ relationship with their State of (former) citizenship, it also affects the validity of visas, their ability to live and work overseas, and to travel, thus changing the nature of their mobility.

Some people, made stateless while overseas years ago, still struggle in such a limbo (e.g. Mikhail Sebastian was stuck on holiday, Dr Railya Abulkhanova struggles to work). Others, who were made stateless at home, have been deported to countries with which they have no relationship (e.g. Dominican citizens denationalised and sent to Haiti).

Urgent and large-scale migration can put people at particular risk of statelessness
There are additional reasons why urgent and large-scale migration can put people at risk of statelessness. First, the person may lose their documents, putting them at risk of being unable to establish their citizenship connection with a particular state. Second, when a child is born in transit, there may be administrative difficulties involved in registration of birth and proving of citizenship, as well as disagreement as to the child’s eligibility for citizenship. Let’s start with the latter.

When a child’s birth is not registered, it may put them at risk of statelessness. This is particularly so in the context of migration since citizenship may not be automatic. Yet birth registration alone is not sufficient to prevent statelessness, nor is the provision of a legal identity (as in Sustainable Development Agenda 16.9).

A child’s birth may be registered, while (as in the case of Daniela above) no state is willing to allocate citizenship. Meanwhile, a person may have a legal identity, but this legal identity itself may prevent them from accessing any citizenship, cementing their statelessness (e.g. some Bidoon in Kuwait, or some Palestinian refugees). In fact, international law requires that every child have access to a nationality and registration immediately from birth (UDHR 15CRC 7ICCPR 24CRS). Only access to citizenship can alleviate the risk of statelessness.

Representing stateless persons
The importance of data has been mentioned throughout the process towards the global compact for migration. Yet stateless persons are perhaps the group most likely to go uncounted. Even when they do not move, they are often absent from census data and development measures, and when they move, there may be no record of them. This can make it difficult to know their needs and to hear their views.

In 2014 UNHCR launched the #IBelong campaign to end statelessness by 2024, asserting that it is important to ensure that every person has access to a citizenship. But the reality of the world is complex, and it is unlikely that there will be a time soon when no one is stateless, or where everyone has a meaningful citizenship. Indeed, there are many today whose political memberships and affiliations are not well represented in the existing arrangement of States. In the world as it is, it may sometimes be necessary to recognise alternative statuses, including a ‘statelessness’ status. Basic and less basic rights cannot be dependent upon citizenship.

Stateless persons are largely unrepresented in national, regional or global processes. They are uncounted and disenfranchised, their very existence may even be denied. With no State to advocate on their behalf, it is crucial that the protection and empowerment of stateless persons insofar as this is related to migration (even where this is not immediately obvious), is part of the global compact. This must include special efforts to reach out to stateless persons and their advocates to query potential impacts on stateless persons of all aspects of the compact.

A full version of this article, which contains a list of ‘considerations for the global compact for migration’, is available on the Refugee Law Initiative blog.

About the author
Dr Tendayi Bloom, is a lecturer in politics and international studies at The Open University in the UK. Her work explores questions of non-citizenship, migration, statelessness and justice. Her work on statelessness can be found in a recent Discover Society blog series, and in a book, Understanding Statelessness, which she co-edited with Katherine Tonkiss and Phillip Cole. A more detailed treatment of Dr Bloom’s own position on the nature of the noncitizen-state relationship is developed in her forthcoming book, Noncitizenism: Recognising Noncitizen Capabilities in a World of Citizens.