Locked out: The 12 million people without a country, and the need to become a citizen
The victims of shifting borders, politics, or the happenstance of birthplace, the world's 12 million stateless people and their need to become citizens are rising on the international human rights agenda.
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In Europe, the Roma – also known derisively as gypsies – often lack identity documents. In Kenya, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 100,000 ethnic Nubians, whose forebears were brought there from Sudan by British colonialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to act as soldiers, have long been denied Kenyan citizenship. Although the situation is starting to change, Nubians cannot acquire identity documents or work in the formal sector, and inhabit large swaths of some of Nairobi's poorest slums.Skip to next paragraph
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In Kuwait, the government denies citizenship to what Refugees International estimate to be 120,000 bidun people (descendants of nomadic Bedouins who either didn't claim or weren't granted citizenship at the time national borders were drawn); in Syria, approximately 300,000 Kurds do not have citizenship. Palestinians are perhaps the best-known stateless group.
In the US, many of the estimated 4,000 stateless are failed asylum seekers or were visiting the US when their home country collapsed, according to Senate staffers who have worked on the issue. For instance, in testimony to the Judiciary Committee, Refugees International president Dan Glickman told of a woman from the former Soviet Union who no longer had a home embassy or consulate, and could not meet residency requirements to become a Ukrainian or a Russian citizen. She'd applied unsuccessfully for asylum in the US before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but now had nowhere to return. He said she lives in constant fear of being jailed.
"Stateless people are perhaps even more vulnerable than refugees due to their near-total lack of ability to exercise their human rights," he said.
Sometimes their situations do overlap with refugee crises. During the 1990s, for instance, human rights groups estimate that around 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who had been denied citizenship in Burma (Myanmar) fled to Bangladesh because of the struggles they faced as noncitizens.
But most stateless people are not refugees, officials with the UN say.
The exact percentage is difficult to calculate, however, because the statistics about stateless people are sketchy at best.
UNHCR is the international body charged with addressing the predicament of stateless people. It collects data on statelessness from individual governments – some of which have valid statistics, but others of which UN officials privately acknowledge are highly inaccurate. "Mapping" statelessness – gathering statistics on not only how many people lack any citizenship, but also on their regions, the reasons for their statelessness and their family histories – is a key part of UNHCR's new strategy of increasing its effort to focus on stateless people.
"We need to undertake a more systematic effort to address this frequently ignored issue," said Volker Türk, director of UNHCR's division of international protection, when the agency announced its new statelessness effort in March. "There is growing interest among states, including donors and civil society, and this creates new opportunities for UNHCR to implement its mandate."
The concept of statelessness first attracted widespread international attention in the aftermath of World War II, when the population of Europe was in flux. The experience of the Jews, who had been denationalized by Germany's Nuremberg laws, along with the postwar border shifting, prompted the UN General Assembly to include the right to nationality in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.