Why we must end the plight of 12 million “nowhere people”

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 15:32 GMT

A Rohingya Muslim boy wraps himself with a blanket at a camp for people displaced by violence, near Sittwe in northwest Myanmar April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Nischal has never had a country to call home. He is stateless and has spent most of his life in a legal limbo.

Not so long ago I met a young man who was homeless and jobless after entering Britain on a false passport. On the face of it his was a story that could have had certain media screaming for his deportation. The thing is Nischal didn’t have any country he could go back to.

Nischal is an ethnic Nepali, who was born in Bhutan and has lived most of his life in India. But none of these countries recognises him as a citizen. He is stateless.

Most of us take our nationality for granted – along with all the benefits that go with it – access to housing, education, healthcare, jobs, a bank account, the right to own property, travel, get married, get a driving licence … the list is pretty much endless.

What really impressed me about Nischal is that despite a catalogue of misfortune he had not sat around feeling sorry for himself. He had taught himself excellent English, was thoughtful, hardworking and would have been an asset to any employer.

But he was stuck in a legal limbo, unable to work and destitute.

Unfortunately, Nischal’s story is far from unique. There are around 12 million stateless people in the world.  

The head of the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, has called for the eradication of statelessness within a decade.

This week countries will get the chance to accede to the two U.N. conventions on statelessness at an event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

This may sound deadly dull but getting countries to agree on the same rules is vital if we are to prevent countless more children being born into the same nightmare as Nischal.

“If we don’t have common, minimum rules there will always be people falling through the cracks. So while the work on accessions and reform of nationality laws is not very glamorous, it is very important.” says Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at the U.N. agency for refugees (UNHCR).

People end up stateless for all sorts of reasons. For example, inconsistent nationality laws mean a child born in one country to parents who are nationals of a second country might not be able to acquire the nationality of either.

In other cases, countries may withhold citizenship from entire populations for ethnic or historical reasons. The Bedouns in Kuwait (93,000) and the Rohingyas in Myanmar (800,000) have been stateless for generations.


The good news is there has been quite a sea change in the two years since the UNHCR started a concerted campaign to raise awareness of statelessness.

Firstly there has been a rush of accessions to the two U.N. treaties on protecting stateless people and preventing and reducing statelessness. The sudden increase in interest - 29 accessions in just over two years - is a sign countries are becoming aware of the devastating impact statelessness has.

A second positive development is the handful of countries taking steps to amend flawed nationality laws, lifting tens of thousands of people out of statelessness. They include Senegal, Zimbabwe, Russia, Bahamas and Ivory Coast

Another bright spot has been the work done by several countries to set up procedures to handle stateless migrants.

Only a tiny number of migrants are stateless like Nischal, but it is crucial that countries have a system for identifying them, regularising their status and granting them basic rights and protection.

If there is no such procedure, stateless people "often end up in detention, in destitution or being bounced around like a ping pong ball from one country to another”, says Manly

Britain, Philippines, Georgia and Moldova have recently established procedures. Brazil, Uruguay, Panama and Costa Rica have them in the pipeline.

This all sounds encouraging but take one look at this map and you see how much work remains to be done. Neither Russia, nor the United States, nor the vast majority of countries in Asia have acceded to either convention on statelessness.

And while around 116,000 stateless people a year on average have acquired nationality in the last three years, this is a drop in the ocean given the scale of the problem.

“If you look at the overall magnitude of the population, 100,000 people is not to be sneezed at but it’s not what we need to eradicate statelessness globally, which is ultimately what the goal is,” Manly said.

“So we really need to have breakthroughs with regard to these very, very large populations around the world if we are to see a real global impact.”

These protracted situations require political will which has not always been forthcoming. But pressure is growing.

It’s encouraging to see concerns over statelessness increasingly cropping up at the Human Rights Council. Myanmar, Kuwait and Latvia (which has many stateless ethnic Russians) have been repeatedly singled out by other U.N. member states for failing to address the issue.

Last week I heard Nischal had finally been able to regularise his status in Britain, allowing him to find a home, look for work and begin building a future.

I’ll be watching this week to see which countries are taking seriously the goal to eradicate statelessness and consign stories like Nischal’s to history.

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