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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More proclamations followed. In 1954, the UN adopted the Convention Related to the Status of Stateless Persons, which attempted to outline rights for those who had no fixed nationality. Seven years later, the UN adopted the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which took measures such as allowing nationality to pass from mother to child, and forbidding countries in most cases from denationalizing citizens. It also charged the UNHCR with overseeing the issue of statelessness.Skip to next paragraph
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But these conventions carried little weight, and the attention fizzled. Only 33 countries ratified the 1961 convention.
It was a tricky issue. No country wants to give up the power to decide who should be a citizen, those working with statelessness acknowledge; in many ways, the ability to exclude people, to draw lines between "us" and "them," is at the heart of the concept of the nation-state.
"In many ways, nationality is the last bastion of the sovereign state doctrine," says James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Institute's Justice Initiative, which now focuses on statelessness as one of its main advocacy issues. "Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has the right to nationality, but nowhere does it say which state must secure that right. We still need some greater clarification of states' obligations."
The question is compounded, he says, by the different histories and characteristics of stateless people; at face value, the Palestinians, say, have little in common with the Dominicans of Haitian descent, or the hill tribes of northern Thailand.
"One of the great challenges in terms of advocacy is that these people are dispersed," Mr. Goldston says. "And it does manifest itself in different ways all across the globe. It is hard to mobilize the stateless as one class or group."
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The Dominican Republic shows the hyperlocal aspect of the question, as well as the common threads of marginalization.
Here, the issue of statelessness revolves around the complicated and troubled relationship between the Dominican Republic and its much poorer neighbor, Haiti. The history of these two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola, is fraught. The Dominican Republic celebrates its independence from Haiti; Haitians remember how Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo massacred thousands of their countrymen living along the border in 1937. [Editor's note: The original version of this story stated 30,000 Haitians were killed. Historic accounts vary between 4,000 and 35,000.]
Today, the Dominican government estimates that hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants enter their country illegally each year – with concerns that the number is increasing dramatically since January's devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince. At the same time, the Dominican economy depends on cheap – many say, ill-treated – Haitian labor to fuel the sugar, tourist, and construction industries. Haitians and Haitian descendents who live in the Dominican Republic often talk about severe racism and mistreatment; Dominicans talk about how Haitians take jobs and tap already strained public resources.
"To understand the Dominican Republic's actions, you have to imagine the American reaction if there were 30 million illegal Mexicans coming into the US every year [as opposed to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimated 500,000]," says one UN worker, who asked not to be identified because her organization works with the government and the topic of statelessness is so sensitive.