Globalization as a Humanitarian Challenge 5: »Statelessness is a profound Violation of Human Rights«


Juliana Fischer: The UNHCR estimates that 10 million people worldwide are stateless. What does statelessness mean? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'A stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, others become stateless. Sadly, unlike refugees or displaced people, stateless people are somewhat neglected and their plight not often addressed.'

Juliana Fischer: How does a person become stateless?

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'There are several reasons why people are born stateless or lose their nationality. Most countries do not allow children born on their territory to become nationals of that country, even though these children would otherwise be stateless. In fact, more than half of all countries in the world have inadequate safeguards in their laws to grant nationality to children born stateless in their territory. Also, there is a relatively large number of countries, including for example Syria and Lebanon, which have gender discriminating laws that prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers. This leaves children stateless when their father is himself stateless, is unknown, or is unwilling to pass his nationality. This is an especially pressing problem in war torn societies like Syria, where many fathers are absent and people are on refuge. Another mechanism of becoming stateless is the emergence of new states and changes in borders. There are quite a few cases in recent history. Noteworthy are European examples like Latvia and Estonia. It is estimated that 12% of the Latvian population remains stateless because after the independence in 1990, only those who could trace their family’s presence on the territory to before Soviet occupation in 1940, were granted citizenship. Those who couldn’t prove this link could choose to acquire citizenship via a very demanding procedure that included learning Latvian language. For many people, it remains a huge obstacle. Then there are cases where states deprive some groups of nationality via changes in law. The 1982 citizenship law in Myanmar left more than 800,000 Rohingya people stateless.'

Juliana Fischer: What kind of implications does statelessness have for the affected people? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'Being stateless is a serious deprivation. It implicates the lack of access to most basic rights, protection, and resources which usually come with nationality. Stateless people live in a legal vacuum. They do not have access to most basic rights and services such as healthcare or education. Often, they are unable to seek legal remedies for violence, discrimination and abuse. They often face insoluble problems over property rights or the custody of children following the death of a spouse or separation. Stateless people also feel severely marginalized and excluded from society. Statelessness affects their prospects and life choices. For example, stateless people often feel discouraged from marrying and having children because they would pass their statelessness to their children.' Stateless people, similarly like undocumented migrants, are often pressured to engage in unofficial or illegal economic relations which makes them very vulnerable to abuse, fraud, trafficking, forcible eviction etc. Once they become part of criminal networks, their chances to acquire legal status is at risk.' 

Juliana Fischer: Are there special challenges that stateless children do face?

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'It is very very unfortunate that so many children are stateless. Because being born stateless profoundly affects the ability to grow, to get basic medical services, to have equal access to education, to find employment and to be entitled to services most states provide. The pressures of being constantly marginalized can destroy children’s sense of belonging and attempts to integrate into a society.'

Juliana Fischer: Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, that ‘everyone has the right to a nationality’ How would you evaluate statelessness from a human rights perspective? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'Statelessness is a profound violation of human rights. The number of legal instruments that address statelessness and affirm the right of every individual to a nationality is impressive. There are human rights instruments, global and regional, and separate legal instruments like the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Sadly, statelessness has not been seen as one of the most profound and urgent violations of human rights. What is even more frustrating is that we have been unable to resolve the issue of child statelessness. Despite the commitment of nearly all states of the world to end child statelessness, states have not progressed much in resolving this issue.' 

Juliana Fischer: How can this gap between rhetorical commitment and reluctance to act be explained? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'Statelessness is one of those specific areas where claims to sovereignty clash with human rights commitments. It has been considered to be one of the most important prerogatives of sovereign states to regulate the flow of people across borders, to determine who can be a citizen and under which conditions. Today, facing massive migration flows and popular backlash against migrants and refugees, states regard their power to grant citizenship as their ultimate sovereign right, perhaps more than ever before. And that of course hinders a solution because the solution ultimately has to lie within states.'

Juliana Fischer: For example, granting citizenship to children born on one’ national territory that would otherwise become stateless? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: Yes, that’s one of the most readily available solutions. We would make a huge step forward if we allowed children to acquire the nationality of a country in which they are born if they would otherwise be stateless. Other solution is to introduce or simplify a procedure of recognition of stateless status. And of course, gender discriminating laws that prevent mothers from passing nationality to their children need to be reformed. Laws and practices that deny nationality to specific ethnic groups also need to be eliminated.

Juliana Fischer: Can statelessness be solved by global cooperation? 

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'If we want to consider possible solutions and difficulties of their implementation, we have to look at the EU. The EU is a group of states that grants human rights to their citizens almost perfectly in most cases and it is an organization that has gone furthest in creating forms of intergovernmental cooperation. Sadly, EU fails to resolve the issue of statelessness. There is no unified approach. Most European states do not allow foreign children to become their nationals simply by being born on their territory. Most states lack procedures to recognize stateless people as stateless and to give them some sort of legal status. Only a handful of European countries (UK, Italy and Latvia) provide formal procedures to recognize stateless persons. The UK introduced a statelessness determination program only in 2013 and the procedure puts a huge burden of proof on applicants, for example it requires they show current passport. Other procedures ask people to be legal residents which is often impossible precisely due to being stateless. 

The fact that there are several hundred thousand stateless people living in the EU is tragic. European states are individually and collectively parties to all international human rights treaties as well as the Convention on Statelessness and they have special responsibility to uphold these norms. It is very regrettable that EU does not fulfil its moral and legal obligations.'

Juliana Fischer: Are there any reasons to be optimistic?  

Dr Petra Gümplová: 'I have seen some positive trends that may give us reasons to hope. For example, in Bangladesh in 2008, 300,000 stateless Urdu-speakers were recognized as citizens, following a High Court ruling. Vietnam has moved to resolve the plight of stateless former refugees from Cambodia. Since 2009 more than 60,000 former Soviet citizens have become nationals in Kyrgyzstan, while over 15,000 have acquired the nationality of Turkmenistan. Côte d’Ivoire also amended its laws in 2013 to allow nationality to be acquired through a simplified application process that will allow many of the 700,000 stateless persons there to acquire citizenship. Now we need to see more reforms within EU.'

Dr Petra Gümplová is Fellow at the Centre with a research interest in International Law and Human Rights, Theory and Practice of State Sovereignty and Theories of Globalization.