* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
If the right to a nationality and inclusion were a house, it would be no exaggeration to say global politics and events have (again) lit a spark under its wooden foundation
Amal de Chickera is a co-director at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.
“We were not born to be vulnerable, we were made to be vulnerable”
These are the words of Hafsar Tameesuddin, a Rohingya activist who addressed the recent World Conference on Statelessness in the Hague. Her words unlock a key, but overlooked, characteristic of the denial of the right to a nationality and resultant statelessness. This is a condition imposed on people (almost always through violating international law), with the intention of weakening them. Statelessness is thus, nothing short of violence.
Even as the words and actions of many world leaders cheapen human rights and lives; promote insularity, narrow nationalism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and hypocrisy and disproportionately target the most vulnerable; those denied legal status, the stateless and those at risk of statelessness are inevitably targeted by the politics of hatred and fear.
Be they Rohingya of Myanmar, refugees fleeing Syria, minorities in Assam India, Dominicans of Haitian origin, single Nepalese mothers, those accused of terrorism in the UK, human rights defenders in Bahrain, or those languishing in camps at the American border; we repeatedly witness the denial of status, the right to a nationality and (risk of) statelessness as a consequence and cause of discrimination, exclusion and hardship.
If the right to a nationality and inclusion were a house, it would be no exaggeration to say global politics and events have (again) lit a spark under its wooden foundation.
Confronted with this reality, over a year ago, our Institute decided to organise a World Conference on Statelessness. This may appear a strange decision, considering the number of all-consuming emergencies globally, but our motivation stemmed from a sense that we cannot always be in reaction mode.
We must confront the issue on the front foot, finding inclusive, creative and effective ways to promote the right to nationality. The conference brought together 300 activists, advocates, academics, artists and others from 60+ countries. One participant referred to it as the ‘A team’, not merely for the alliterative descriptors, but because of the commitment shown to come together and create something bigger and better than the sum of our parts.
But what does this mean?
On an issue as complex and intersectional as statelessness, spanning numerous fields including human rights, migration, child rights, development, feminism, humanitarianism, conflict, economics and politics (to name but some), it is evident that there are no simple or straightforward solutions. The conference however did throw up some clear indicators:
- The grand challenges of statelessness: the conference was structured around 10 Grand Challenges focusing on global crises and big issues – the Rohingya, Syria, gender discrimination, citizenship stripping and legal identity etc. These issues are bigger than statelessness but can only be resolved if the right to a nationality and statelessness is understood and prioritised.
- The underlying problems: The underlying causes of exclusion and statelessness are most often racism, patriarchy and xenophobia. We can tell right from wrong when a racist attacks a minority child, a misogynist harasses a woman, or a xenophobe abuses a migrant. But when this happens under the cloak of law, procedure and official language, we respond not with anger, but tolerance. We try to find a middle ground. The Kuwaiti Bidoon, the Nepali mother or stateless refugee in Greece are not searching for middle ground. They demand their rights.
- Celebrating successes: We have many successes to celebrate, including the Makonde securing their Kenyan citizenship and a Sierra Leonian law reform that provided women with the equal right to confer nationality on their children. We must learn from our successes, as we do from our defeats.
- Inclusive, interdisciplinary and effective: We have to confront inequalities among ourselves, accepting the very real barriers to inclusion we face, challenging ourselves to diversify our work and our partners, and ultimately transcend the limitations of our own organisations and contexts, creating something bigger, that cannot be claimed by one entity.
- Activists front and centre: A global movement must have courageous activists who defy the odds to fight for their people. We who are not directly impacted by statelessness must step aside and let the real experts set the agenda, guide us and hold us to account.
We have a long way to go, but the stakes cannot be higher. The more nationality is instrumentalised and viewed as a privilege to be taken away from the undeserving, the more we will see people and groups being labelled as such, so they may be excluded, denied and deprived. Our house is burning and we can only stem the fire through a global movement and working together.