Statelessness: A Tragic Side Effect Of Our Modern World

Consider for a moment, your citizenship. For most people our nationality, and therefore our citizenship, is something we were born with, something we inherited and are in no danger of ever losing. Yet, around the world today, there is an estimated 10 million stateless people. That’s 10 million people without any access to public services or legal rights: no employment, medical treatment, education or even marriage. Today, our modern state system is failing these people, who through preventable circumstances have fallen between the cracks of society into an ambiguous and marginalised existence.

Statelessness is a specific defect of our modern world. Speaking at the World Conference on Statelessness held at The Hague last month, Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy said, “Statelessness is a problem of modernity, as the rise of the nation-state has been with us for only about two centuries.” As a member of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, — which documents the crisis that has forced over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims into statelessness across the Bangladeshi border — she has seen first hand the desperate lives stateless individuals lead. Most of us fall within the comfortable confines of this state-centric world, our citizenship entitles us to certain liberties, and in times of need we can look to our government to protect us. In theory, this is a system which should serve us all. Yet in practice this is not true: the rise of the nation-state has led to an unprecedented increase in border security, tightening citizenship and migratory protocol has enabled governments that often consider an individual’s citizenship before their welfare. Reece Jones, in his 2016 book, ‘Violent Borders’ summarised this development thus: “The creation of a legal regime of citizenship and identity documents, combined with border infrastructure, has resulted in a global border regime to restrict the poor.”

So how exactly, in our entirely globalised and occupied world, does statelessness occur? Amongst the most common causes of statelessness are: discrimination, gender bias, and the creation and dissolution of states. When the Soviet Union disbanded, 600,000 people were left stateless, and were effectively denied citizenship of all newly founded states in the region. Today the most publicised example of this discrimination can be seen in Myanmar, where the powerful military junta by way of governmental acquiescence has denied citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim population. This, despite their ancestral ties to the land which date back centuries.

Additionally many countries today maintain laws that disallow single mothers to confer citizenship to their child; no father, no motherland. One third of all known stateless individuals are children. That’s more than three million children born into an environment in which their existence is not recognised. These blameless children represent a vicious cycle that has manifested over decades, where arbitrary regulation and cultural intolerance is sworn into law. As the state exists as our primary organisational metric in the world today, it makes addressing the issue of statelessness all the more difficult.

In recent years however, a significant push has been made to solve this wholly solvable issue. In 2014, The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a report entitled ‘Ending Statelessness within 10 Years.’  Based around a ten point action plan, this document seeks to pressure governments to amend their legislation and policy, as well as to mobilise public understanding. “UNHCR insists that the problem is largely avoidable, and with adequate political will, entirely solvable too.”

The tragic irony is that at its core statelessness is a problem born of lack of recognition. But just as it may cause despair to illuminate statelessness as a product of our society, it is equally empowering to consider that this too makes abolition achievable. Since 2004, 12 countries have reformed their gender-based nationality laws, allowing women to pass on their nationality to their children. For the time being however, statelessness remains a peripheral issue. Many states today, Australia included, do not possess appropriate legislation to handle their own cases of statelessness. The UNHCR continues to do vital work documenting the undocumented, and informing the ignorant. There will always be a place for nongovernmental advocacy of this kind. But inevitably the responsibility must be shifted to the many states that make up our modern world, whose power and policy ultimately decides who is, and who is not, welcome.

Oliver Lees