Stateless people are deprived of a nationality. They have been described as living ghosts who inhabit the world.
The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) estimates that 15 million people in the world are stateless.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) provides a more conservative estimate of 10 million accompanied by an admission of gaps in their counting.
Article 15 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
A stateless person is deprived of national identity and the protection of a state. The condition of statelessness is different from that of being undocumented.
Undocumented people can, often with considerable effort, receive birth certificates, identity cards and passports. Stateless people live in a perpetual limbo.
What are the implications of statelessness?
Stateless people often lack protection, lack access to education and health care, are restricted to menial labor, cannot be legally married, are unable to use banks, cannot legally own land and are unable to hold a passport.
Stateless people are vulnerable to crime and exploitation, including human trafficking. They do not show up on the radar because they have none of the rights of citizenship.
Why are people stateless?
The most common reason is that the children of most stateless parents are automatically stateless. Their births will not even be registered.
There are additional factors that render a person stateless, such as conflicting laws of nationality that affect the parents and their children. Is nationality conferred by place of birth or by the status of the parents? Is it passed down by the father or the mother? What happens when the child is abandoned?
The formation of new states may leave certain people stateless. The creation of South Sudan in 2011 left some people stateless in both Sudan and the new country. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a massive problem of stateless people.
States may deprive certain people of their nationality. Syria’s program of Arabisation deprived 120,000 Kurds of their nationality in 1962. In 2011, an estimated 300,000 Kurds living in Syria were stateless.
Some people are stateless simply because of the difficulty of registering and counting them within the borders of a country. Nomadic people may cross international borders without identifying with a particular country. The rural poor may live beyond the administrative reach of a national government.
Finally, some people renounce their citizenship and exist for an extended period as stateless. The most famous case was that of Albert Einstein, who rejected his German citizenship in 1896, and was stateless until he became a Swiss national in 1901.
The two most well-known stateless groups today are the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (Burma) and Palestinians who are deprived of a national identity.
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar. In 2015, an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya lived as stateless people in their country of birth.
The decision to deprive the Rohingya of citizenship was made in 1982 when the government decided that they were not one of the national races of Myanmar.
The authorities alleged that they were from Bangladesh although the Rohingya had been in Myanmar for centuries.
They have been called the most persecuted minority group in the world. More than a half-million Rohingya refugees have fled from the Rakhine region of Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh in recent months.
The situation of Palestinians is complex. In 1948, thousands of Palestinian families lost homes and land to Israeli settlers with the official sanction of the U.N.
Today, an estimated 5.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon are registered with the U.N. but are not considered to be citizens.
In contrast, Jordan granted national status to Palestinians but not without difficulties and gaps.
People in the West Bank and Gaza consider their country to be Palestine. But Palestine is not considered to be a nation by most countries, and the U.N. has accorded it with only observer status.
Many Palestinians who live in Israel have chosen not to be citizens for political reasons.
The stateless nature of Palestinians since 1948 ranks as one of the open wounds of the world.
Should statelessness be an issue?
If the 15 million stateless people were brought together to form a country, the combined population would rank as the 70th largest country in the world. The size of the problem should attract our attention.
Christians believe that every life bears the image of God. We hold to the sacredness of human life. Christians also emphasize the virtues of justice and mercy. These factors push us to regard statelessness as an important issue.
What can we do?
Prayer allows us to express our concerns before God. Building public awareness and advocacy are prophetic acts that give voice to the voiceless.
A good place to start for most North American churches is to support the UNHCR “I Belong Campaign,” which has the goal of ending statelessness within a decade.
Finally, donations to Rohingya relief will allow congregations to express their concern for stateless people in a time of great need.
Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ resource specialist and is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” His writings can also be found on his website.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10). Previous articles in the series are: