“To be stateless is like you don’t exist; you live in a parallel world with no proof of your identity,” says Leal in a United Nations Refugee Agency video, Voices of Stateless: Leal’s Story — Lebanon. Her grandfather did not register her father’s birth and thus he could not register Leal’s birth. This means her marriage could not be registered and so she could not register the birth of her children.
Leal is one of millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region who find themselves without a sense of identity or belonging. Living without a birth certificate or an identity document means in most countries no rights to housing, water, healthcare or basic education, as well as exclusion from meaningful participation in public life.
This is the reality for up to an estimated 15-million people around the world. They do not automatically acquire citizenship at birth and, if they do, they can lose this involuntarily later on, sometimes because of racial or gender discriminatory laws. They exist between borders, nonentities in the legal realm of the state system; they live on the fringes of society and do not enjoy basic rights or the same life opportunities that citizens do. They are citizens of nowhere.
But there is one similarity between the status of citizen and of the stateless and it is that both are a result of state decision-making. One of the major causes of statelessness is governments that have made laws that exclude people from society and communities based on race and gender.
States confer citizenship and states deny and revoke citizenship. Individual choice does not hold. For instance, many countries in the Mena region do not afford women the right to pass on their citizenship to their children; this has to be done through the father. This is a problem when, for example, a women has been raped and conceives, when a family is split, often because of war in the region, or, in some cases, when the father disappears.
Denying women, who are typically the primary caregivers in any society, the right to register their children and giving them citizenship contravenes their human rights. It leaves their children rejected, without a home, identity or future in the country of their mother’s origin, and this is perpetuated from generation to generation.
Governments that practice and promulgate such laws contravene international law. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which most of the states in the Mena region are signatories, states that “everyone has a right to a nationality”, and adds “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality nor denied the right to change their nationality”.
Furthermore, two treaties that deal with the issue of statelessness form the legal framework for dealing with the very real and urgent issue of stateless persons: the 1954 Convention Relating to the State of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These place the responsibility of addressing statelessness on the very entities that confer citizenship.
For instance, should a child be born in a territory and be without citizenship, the 1961 convention states that the host country must give the child citizenship, irrespective of the citizenship of the child’s parents.
In an era of conflict and popular uprisings in the Mena region, it has become common for families to be split and for children to become orphaned without having been conferred citizenship. Some become refugees, living in the camps of neighbouring countries without an identity or sense of belonging. Lost in their homeland, without a home.
Other causes of statelessness include inter-state wars and conflicts and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity (in some countries, if you are thought not to be of indigenous ethnic origin, or at least have a member whose ancestry is from that region, you are denied citizenship by the government). Administrative obstacles are another contributing factor; some weak states simply do not have the administrative capacity to document their citizens. This is often the case where there is conflict or war, although it sometimes occurs because of corruption and maladministration.
Another cause of statelessness is non-state territories. Countries such as Palestine, Somaliland and Western Sahara are still struggling to gain statehood and for recognition. If you are a “citizen” of a non-state territory, you are stateless.
In response to this growing concern in global affairs, and recognising that this is a problem that affects many functioning states, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion is hosting a conference on Citizenship for Inclusive Societies at The Hague from June 26 to 28 this year. About 250 statelessness activists, nongovernmental organisations, academics, United Nations officials, government officials, artists and journalists from around the world will discuss the role of citizenship in promoting inclusive societies. The conference will explore the diverse challenges that need to be met to realise the right to a nationality for all.
The laws pertaining to nationality in countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria and a number of other Mena states have continued to render children and adults stateless. Those who are undocumented from birth will most likely never, without legal assistance, know what it is to hold an ID with their name on it. In some cases, people only discover they are stateless during deportation proceedings when no country will issue an emergency travel document to authorise their deportation.
Promoting law reform and building administrative capacity therefore remain high priorities, in line with the global action plan and other development initiatives such as the sustainable development goals. It is the responsibility of individual states to ensure that statelessness ceases to exist and the responsibility of the international community to ensure compliance with the conventions on statelessness by putting pressure on states that are found to contravene these international laws.
In reality, nationality is not a matter of how much a person feels that they belong to or comes from any particular place. The crux of the matter is whether they qualify for statehood under law and are considered a national by the state in question.
Stateless people are subject to the state’s immigration law and policy and are often victims of deportation, expulsion and unfair detention. Although accounts of these problems in the Mena region are not widespread, there have been several reports of deportation orders served on stateless persons, including cases in which the people have been living in the state for years, or even for generations.
States need to show that they are at least willing to make an effort to ameliorate statelessness and address the conditions under which statelessness exists by adhering to the conventions, otherwise they must be held accountable by human rights organisations and society at large for not fulfilling the duty for which they are charged.
Luyanda Ndaba is a photojournalist whose work focuses on China-Africa relations, human rights, healthcare and philosophical archaeology. Nezo Sobekwa is a lecturer in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg. These are their own views