Stateless finally arrive on the world political map

The political drive to tackle statelessness has finally found a foothold on the global platform, writes the author.

Roma people in the former Yugoslavia are often stateless and suffer due to limited rights [EPA]

There is no bigger political forum than the United Nations and no better place than Geneva to set the global human rights agenda. So there was little doubt that the biggest ministerial conference of its kind organised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week would yield significant outcomes. Yet the gathering organised to mark the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the Statelessness Convention managed to acquire a historic status. 

Nearly six long decades after the first special legal instrument to protect stateless people was created in the form of the 1954 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the UN member states finally put the momentum behind the drive to tackle one of the most forgotten and politically contentious human rights issues in the world. An overwhelming number of 145 countries – half represented by their ministers – gathered in Geneva to discuss a way forward to deal with the situation of refugees and the stateless people in the world. The meeting opened with nervous anticipations preceded by months of laborious rounds of discussions and disagreements.

 Recognising Malaysia’s stateless Indians

Refugees and stateless people are at the frontline of the majority of conflicts, disputes and other humanitarian situations spanning the political, ethnic and economic divides across the world. There are more than 15 million refugees worldwide and over 26 million people who are internally displaced. Statelessness, on the other hand, affects up to 12 million people, of which 6 million are believed to be children. Both situations are primarily restricted to developing countries.

While refugees fleeing borders due to crises or conflicts are relatively visible to the world community and humanitarian agencies, stateless people remain invisible and unaccounted for within the countries they live, often denied some of the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Statelessness occurs for a number of reasons, including discrimination against minority groups in nationality laws, failure to include all residents as citizens when a state becomes independent and conflicts of laws between states.

Imagine the entire combined populations of Ireland, New Zealand, Botswana and Bahrain – that is, the number of people who have no legal status, no nationality and as a result, limited or no rights. Very often this means that stateless people cannot open a bank account; they cannot get married legally; they cannot work or own a property; they do not even exist on paper. What is worse is that statelessness can be self-perpetuating, with women and children among the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including human trafficking, gender-based violence, and arbitrary arrest and detention. Children born to parents with no legal status and identity become stateless from the moment they are born.

According to UNHCR, today, the bulk of new stateless cases involve children born to stateless parents. “Very often, stateless children cannot go to school because they have no birth certificatesGovernments must make birth registration available without any discrimination,” says Nadya Kassam, Head of Global Advocacy at Plan International. The child rights and development organisation has been running a global campaign for universal birth registration since 1998. In this respect, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the stage for global debate at the UN meet when she called for adequate nationality legislation and universal birth registration among key measures to tackle statelessness.

Citing discrimination against women as one of major causes of statelessness, Clinton said at least 30 countries around the world prevent women from acquiring, retaining, or transmitting citizenship to their children and their foreign spouses. And in some cases, nationality laws strip women of their citizenship if they marry someone from another country.

Clinton said: “We will work to persuade government officials and members of parliaments to change nationality laws that discriminate against women, to ensure universal birth registration and to establish procedures and systems to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship for stateless persons.” With Clinton’s explicit reference to nationality laws and discrimination, and pledge to support efforts to end or amend discriminatory laws, the United States has touched a raw nerve that lies at the centre of statelessness issue.

Due to its direct link to citizenship and nationality, the issue of statelessness involves high political stakes worldwide and therefore remains among the most overlooked issues on the human rights agenda. Communities of ethnic Rohingya people in Myanmar, the Bidoon in the Gulf States and a number of hill tribes in Thailand have been struggling for decades to gain citizenship of the country they are born in and living in for generations. In the 1990s, the states created by the dissolution of Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia left hundreds of thousands stateless, mostly marginalised ethnic and social groups. Of these, tens of thousands still do not have citizenship of any country.

To put the acute political complexities of statelessness in context, while the Refugee Convention has been ratified by over 140 nations, only 38 member states out of 193 had signed up to the Statelessness Convention as of June this year, making it among the least ratified human rights treaties in the world. Against this backdrop, the US’ leading role in tackling statelessness could well encounter a minefield of political disagreements and disapproval. Majority of nations where stateless people are concentrated are not signatories to the legally binding treaties on statelessness.

Despite these challenges, the political drive to tackle statelessness has finally managed to find a foothold on the global platform. The US, besides the influence of its political weight, is also the largest financial donor of the UNHCR. It also takes more refugees than any other nation in the world. In 2011 alone it allowed in more than 56,000 refugees from more than 60 countries. The US’ key role in spearheading this human rights agenda and its elaborate plans of dealing with statelessness will have a significant impact on the pace and course of global efforts to address one of most challenging human rights issues confronting the world.

At the conclusion of the Ministerial conference on Thursday, the mood was euphoric in Geneva. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres described the meeting as a “quantum leap” forward as 20 more nations made commitments in relation to ratification of the statelessness conventions. Additionally, 25 other states made pledges in order to improve the protection of stateless people. The landmark achievements of the Geneva conference may take months and even years to show impact on the ground. However, what the conference has instantly achieved is it has put millions of invisible, forgotten and marginalised stateless people right at the centre of the world’s political map.
Davinder Kumar is an award-winning development journalist and press officer for global child rights and community development organisation Plan International. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.