Rejected by the countries they call home and denied the most basic of rights, stateless people live in a shadowy limbo — in the words of one such person, like being “between the earth and the sky.”
Up to 15 million people are stateless, not recognized as nationals by any country. They are some of the most invisible people on the planet — an anonymity the UN hopes to lift when it launches an international campaign today to highlight their plight.
“One of the big problems we have is that this simply is not recognized as being a major issue globally,” said Mark Manly, head of the stateless unit at the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“In the media there’s very little discussion, in universities there’s very little research and in the UN, until relatively recently, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion either, so the effect of all that is that we still have major gaps in our knowledge,” Manly said.
Statelessness exacerbates poverty, creates social tensions, breaks up families and destroys children’s futures. In some cases it can even fuel wars when disenfranchised people pick up weapons, as has happened in Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yet only 38 countries have signed the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which marks its 50th anniversary on Tuesday next week.
One of the largest stateless groups is the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of South Asian descent refused citizenship by the Myanmar government. Hundreds of thousands are scattered throughout Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.
“There are no countries in this world for Rohingyas,” said Kyaw Myint, 44, now living in Malaysia. “Even animals can have peace of mind, but for the Rohingyas, because we are stateless, there is no peace of mind.”
The effects vary by country, but typically stateless people are barred from education, healthcare and formal employment. They often can’t start a business, own property, hold a driving license or open a bank account. They can’t get married legally or travel abroad to work or visit family.
And they can’t vote, which means they can’t elect politicians who might be able to improve their lot.
Being stateless is like being “between the earth and the sky,” said Mohamed Alenezi, a Bedouin from Kuwait.
“You are here and not here,” added Alenezi, 42, who currently lives in London.
Like many Bedouins (stateless Arabs) he is the descendant of nomadic tribes that for centuries roamed freely across what is now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Probing the origins of statelessness is a lesson in world history and geography.
In many cases groups failed to be included when their countries became independent or drew up a new constitution. Many Kuwaiti Bedouins fell through the cracks when the country became independent in 1961, and the Roma in Europe have faced major problems in obtaining citizenship in the new countries that emerged after the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
Manly said the UNHCR is closely watching the succession of South Sudan. It is also scrutinizing the drafting of Nepal’s new constitution amid fears millions could end up stateless.
A major factor behind statelessness is often racial or ethnic discrimination. Syria, for example, denationalized many Kurds in 1962 and Mauritania expelled around 75,000 Black Mauritanians in 1989.
Stateless people are vulnerable to exploitation, including slavery and prostitution, and risk arbitrary detention. Their lack of identity can make accessing legal help impossible — no one knows how many stateless people are locked up worldwide.