The Numbers Game of Politics: A Panel on Statelessness (Part 1)

Contemporary Issues

On February 22nd, LSESU Amnesty International Society held a panel on statelessness, where three distinguished individuals introduced the audience to this issue’s various dimensions, and the way that these can be conceptualized in contemporary debates.

Part 1 recapitulates the main questions that were discussed by the first two panelists. Part 2 will recount and contextualize the third panelist’ – Sayed Alwadaei – testimonial, a Bahraini who was stripped of his nationality last year as a result of his political activism.


Today, UNHCR estimates that there are 10 million stateless people in the world. This is by any means a number which should give us a pause: it represents quite a large group of people who today have access to little, if any, rights – whether political and civil, or social, economic and cultural.

Take a minute to think of whether you would have access to the following if you did not hold citizenship in a state recognized by the international community:

  • a driver’s licence
  • a phone contract
  • healthcare benefits
  • a pension scheme
  • social welfare
  • the ability to get legally married.

Note that this is a non-exhaustive list.

You wouldn’t, would you? Yet, does 10 million give us pause? Looking at the amount of attention that is paid to and information that is known about stateless people, not really, no. Sure, you may have heard about the Rohingya in Myanmar because they’re a media hotspot, but what do you know about the future generation of Syrians who is today at risk of growing up stateless?

And Bronwen Manby – who is currently working on the UNHCR #IBELONG campaign to end statelessness – said that 10 million is in fact likely to be a conservative estimate, with the real numbers probably reaching much higher proportions.

Credit: the UNCHR’s #IBELONG Campaign Website

As the first speaker in the panel, Manby endeavoured to re-embed the concept of nationality/citizenship (she and other panelists used the two terms interchangeably) within its historical context: indeed, citizenship first came about in 19th century Europe as a privilege, to be given at the discretion of the State. While this has changed and is today more understood as a right, there is still no positive obligation for states to grant nationality.

In other words, while today’s state system requires individuals to be citizens somewhere in order to access the full panoply of rights that we are all supposedly entitled to, there is no mirror requirement for states to issue citizenship to all individuals. Thus we fall into well-known patterns of buck-passing: states will skirt the responsibility of recognizing an individual as their national, arguing for instance that they are in fact the responsibility of a neighbouring country.

This is very problematic when someone is not registered at birth: the process of being recognized as a “forgotten” national in a given state gets harder as the person gets older; importantly, this person is faced with mounting disbelief regarding the legitimacy and credibility of their claim to nationality.

This can affect certain minorities disproportionately. As Zoe Gardner – who works as Asylum Aid and sits on the Advisory Board of the European Network on Statelessness – related, a lot of Roma people are stateless today because of a lack of knowledge of, or difficulty in accessing, birth registers in the various states where they may be residing.

This issue of birth registration is also crucial to understanding what may be some of the consequences of mass displacement. Both Manby and Gardner talked at length of the various hurdles that, for instance, fleeing/displaced Syrian are today being confronted with in this regard. They in fact face similar obstacles to that of the Roma people: little knowledge, little access.

Credit: Flickr Commons

An example is the large Syrian refugee population currently located in Turkey: as Gardner explained, many underage Syrian girls are being married to Turkish men in an effort – many argue – to increase their security and means for subsistence. However, these marriages are technically illegal and thus cannot be registered under Turkish law. This becomes quite a problem when they produce children: under Syrian law, nationality can only be passed on by the father. Thus the child cannot get citizenship from their mother’s side. Yet, since the child’s parents are not officially registered as a married couple, paternity cannot be proven and thus the child is not eligible for Turkish citizenship either. Therefore, the child is in all likelihood born stateless.

Gardner, building on her experience with Asylum Aid, also explained how hard it is for someone to make a credible claim for protection as a stateless person. Indeed, this person would have to show that they are “ready and willing to go back” to a given country but are unable to due to a lack of nationality. This should ideally be documented, where the applicant must demonstrate that they have tried, for example, to obtain citizenship by going to the embassy but papers were refused to them.

Obviously, this is almost impossible to do: when you are refused recognition as a national, embassies rarely give you a stamped piece of paper saying “not right now, try again later!”. In this case, the “best” thing that might happen to a stateless person is for the host state to try to remove them, and find out they cannot because no other state will accept them as their responsibility. Clearly, this is very problematic as a “solution” given how traumatic such an experience can be.

Another interesting aspect of trying to claim protection as a stateless person is that it stands at odds with the process of claiming refugee status. Where, as stated above, a stateless person must show ability and willingness to return to the country of habitual residence, a refugee must instead show that they are unable or unwilling to return there given a well-founded fear of persecution. Thus, these two instruments are non-complementary by nature: this has serious consequences for the kind of protection that is available to stateless people. As Gardner elaborated, stateless people might in fact apply for refugee status as advised by their lawyers, since the basis for this protection claim may then be more credible.

At the end of the day, as Mandy argued, we’re unfortunately dealing with the “numbers game of politics.” More rights-holders, a.k.a. citizens, translates into higher costs in dealing out these rights for the duty-bearers, who are the states. Not only does this translate into states refusing to recognize more nationals, but it can also lead to current nationals being stripped of their citizenship. This equates the state absolving itself of any responsibility regarding this person’s actions, and cancelling out their obligation to provide these individuals with the rights conferred upon them as citizens of the world.

An interesting illustration of the implications of this process is the current debate in France over a law which would enable the state to strip terrorists of their nationality, provided this would not make them stateless.

Also, stay tuned for Part 2 of this article which will relate the story of Sayed Alwadaei, who was made stateless by his home state Bahrain last year and has claimed asylum in the UK.


Margot Charles

Credit for Featured Image: Flickr Commons


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