Coauthored with Isabella Bennett, program coordinator in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
Guor Marial, a cross-country All-American athlete at Iowa State, ran two marathons in Olympic qualifying times. But with no passport and no country—and no coach nor a sponsor—he watched the summer games’ opening ceremony on television from Flagstaff, Arizona. After fleeing from a Sudanese refugee camp at the age of eight, Marial had eventually escaped to Egypt and then the United States, where he lives as a permanent U.S. resident but without citizenship. Then, the day before the competition began, the International Olympic Committee finally granted Marial permission to run as an independent athlete. Marial, who works at night and trains by day, finished forty-seventh in London. No medal, but a rare triumph for the world’s stateless.
As many as fifteen million people worldwide cannot claim a state as their own, because they lack legal citizenship or formal documentation of their status. They are, in effect, “legal ghosts,” lacking even the “right to have rights.” And unlike Marial, many are not even considered refugees—placing them in a precarious legal limbo. They may be deprived of education, employment, housing, public health and welfare benefits, the right to vote, and access to legal justice.
Many people are born stateless. Discriminatory laws in some nations deny certain ethnic groups citizenship. In Myanmar, for instance, the government maintains that the Rohingya people do not belong to the official “national races of Burma,” regardless of the fact that many of them trace their roots back centuries. In another notable case, the government of Slovenia erased the names of twenty-five thousand individuals from the national register because they had not met the three conditions for citizenship after its independence from Yugoslavia. Many of these “erased” people protested that they had never been informed of the policies.
Migrant workers or trafficked individuals may also lose citizenship status—and their children may be ineligible for citizenship of any nation. Geography can also exacerbate statelessness, as some rural populations simply live too far from state registration clinics. Finally, as Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero notes, pervasive gender discrimination compounds statelessness. In twenty-six countries, primarily in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, legislation can prevent women from acquiring, conferring, or changing their nationality. These laws prevent women from passing citizenship to a foreign husband (who may lose his citizenship upon marrying her) and also prevent women from passing citizenship to a child. For example, the Swaziland constitution decrees that a child born after 2005 is only a citizen if his or her father is a citizen.
While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies a general right to nationality, it does not spell out the specific responsibilities of states to guarantee nationality. The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness seek to fill this gap. These treaties define “statelessness,” and state parties agree to grant basic rights, such as bestowing citizenship at birth and supplying travel documents. But with only seventy-four and forty-five state parties respectively, these instruments have made little headway in solving the growing problem of individuals who have no place to call home. (See map below.) The United States continues to resist both treaties, on the principled ground that U.S. law “has long recognized the right of Americans to renounce their nationality, even if doing so would lead to statelessness.” Notwithstanding this decision, the State Department treats statelessness as an important human right and humanitarian issue, and U.S. diplomats advocate vigorously against discriminatory citizenship laws in other countries
The United States is also the largest financial contributor to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency mandated to address the plight of the world’s stateless. Supported by the international community, UNHCR has taken the lead in advocating for stateless people’s rights, encouraging accession to the relevant international conventions and providing policy advice and staff training to countries with large stateless populations. For instance, a 2003 UNHCR initiative supported a drive to register more than 190,000 “Estate Tamils” who were brought to Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century by the British.
The United States can and should do more to battle the problem of statelessness, through its engagement with regimes around the world that are falling short of their international obligations. A good start has been the increased attention given to stateless populations the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Taking a bilateral approach may be more realistic than seeking a comprehensive global solution, given one particularly inconvenient truth for Washington: that the largest proportion by far of the world’s stateless are members of the Palestinian diaspora, numbering perhaps four million people. Until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled, concerted global cooperation to fight statelessness will likely be stalled by its impact in that region.