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Under international law, a stateless person is one who “is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law” (1). Many stateless persons have no civil rights and are forced to live in the shadows; they cannot go to school, get medical care, own property or travel.
The turmoil in Europe and Asia Minor throughout the 20th century deprived many of their nationality: the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, White Russians fleeing the Revolution and, of course, many Jews. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, new groups appeared in eastern Europe, such as some Roma (after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia) and the Baltic State Russians.
The status of stateless persons is different from that of refugees, and is governed by the 1954 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Twenty years after it was adopted, the UN General Assembly assigned the task of protecting stateless persons (and attacking the root of the problem, with the entry into force of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness) to the UNHCR. In 2011 some 3.5 million stateless persons were registered with the agency, though it estimated their actual number at around 12 million.
“For a decade, the Office of the High Commissioner has been more actively engaged in contributing to the resolution of cases of statelessness,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR representative in France, who has studied the phenomenon in depth. One little-known cause is that, in some countries, a mother cannot by law pass on her nationality to her children. This was the case in Indonesia until 2006, when a new citizenship law backed by the UNHCR was passed. The same change occurred recently in Morocco and Algeria, and Leclerc hopes they will serve as examples to other North African and Middle Eastern countries.
UNHCR intervention was also decisive in the case of the Crimean Tatars, who were deported under Stalin and finally granted Ukrainian citizenship after their return.
The greatest achievement of recent years is the issuing of citizenship certificates to 2.6 million Dalits in Nepal (20% of the country’s population), long-term victims of the caste system, which still oppresses other minorities such as the Madheshis. The Dalits were granted citizenship on the eve of the legislative elections of 2007.
The UNHCR is also advocating access to nationality for stateless communities as large as those of the Muslims in Rakhine State, northern Burma (800,000 people), the Bidoun in the Gulf States (200,000), the hill tribes of Thailand, and various nomadic groups at risk of statelessness around the world. Another example of progress is the naturalisation in 2003 of Sri Lanka’s 190,000 Hill Country Tamils (distinct from the Northern Tamils), two centuries after their ancestors were sent there from British India to work on tea plantations. But legacies of the colonial era remain: 100,000 stateless Nubians, descendants of soldiers brought to Kenya by the British army 100 years ago, are unable to obtain citizenship because they cannot lay claim to an ancestral home there.
In the Americas, where citizenship is determined by country of birth, the Dominican Republic is an exception: its constitution stipulates that anyone born on national territory shall automatically be granted citizenship, except those whose parents are foreigners “in transit”. That is the case for hundreds of thousands of Haitians, even though they have been living in the Dominican Republic for decades.
Augusta Conchiglia is a journalist.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.