A Series On Statelessness: What Does It Mean To Be Stateless?

“Invisible” people exist all around the world. They are commonly referred to as “stateless.” But in some places, they’re also known as “the erased“.

According to the UNHCR, “The international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” In short, they have no nationality in any country.

Statelessness by the numbers

It’s estimated that there are about 10 million of these “invisible” persons worldwide. But most countries have no way of accurately documenting individuals they fail to recognize.

In Malaysia, establishing the number of stateless residents proves to be a controversial task. The government recently released an official number of stateless Indians in the country based on the number of applications they had received for citizenship (3,853). This number is being called into question by an advisor for Lawyers of Liberty, Surendran. He argues that this number does not include those:

  • who have been rejected for citizenship
  • whose applications have gone missing, or
  • who have not been able to apply or have stopped trying.

Instead, he believes the government should accept “the figure of 300,000 stateless Indians which [he] had first suggested in 2012. That figure was a credible estimate based upon the feedback from NGOs, activists, and also population studies.”

And even if there was an accurate number of stateless persons worldwide, the problem isn’t close to being solved.

The UNHCR estimates that every 10 minutes a stateless child is born. And in the top 20 countries with the largest stateless populations, at least 70,000 stateless children are born yearly.

Some of these countries include: Estonia, Iraq, Kuwait, Latvia, Myanmar, Nepal, Saudi-Arabia, the Syrian Arab Republic, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, India. and Indonesia.

infographic of Statistics on Statelessness

How does someone become stateless?

There are a variety of ways that someone can become stateless including:

  • An event that affects the legitimacy of a state and thus the nationality of its citizens.
  • The birth of a child in a foreign country where that country does not grant citizenship to those born on its soil. And where the parents’ country of citizenship does not grant immediate citizenship to those born outside of its borders.
  • Arbitrary withdrawal of citizenship by the government.
  • Administrative problems or confusion of laws and bureaucracy.

And these are only a few examples. There are many more scenarios where an individual’s nationality can be lost, denied, or taken from them.

The problems of statelessness

Looking at the numbers only tells us so much. It’s important to understand what it actually means to be stateless.

Imagine for a moment that a new government took over your country. Suddenly your driver’s license, passport, and all other documentation verifying your citizenship were declared to be no longer valid. Perhaps, because of the color of your eyes, you were told you’d be denied citizenship under the new government.

What would your life be like?

If the government held strict regulations against foreign citizens, you could be imprisoned in a moment’s notice. In all likelihood, you would have to hide your family away from government officials. Perhaps even bribe those who came to report your family.

Police car

Your children would not be able to attend any public functions. Furthermore, you’d be at the mercy of private individuals who were willing to help “illegals.”

You wouldn’t be able to legally drive a car, have a job or travel anywhere that required showing identification.

Because you couldn’t legally work, you’d probably be taken advantage of by employers. And you’d have no way to demand fair compensation.

It’s hard for us to even imagine living under these circumstances. But for those who are stateless, these are the realities they face every day. In addition, undocumented persons, especially children are prime targets for human traffickers. After all, who will report them missing? And even if someone does, who will waste money to look for non-citizens?

Stateless children are trafficked for sexual exploitation, slave-labor, and even illegal adoptions. Some are taken to serve in the military despite being too young as they’re unable to prove their age.

What’s to be done about it?

Just the term “stateless” implies that with the State’s intervention, statelessness wouldn’t be an issue. But this isn’t entirely the case. For one, state regulations created this problem in the first place. And furthermore, it’s often state bureaucracy that keeps people stateless.

While the UNHCR has a goal to end statelessness by 2024, what can private individuals do? And what would statelessness look like in Christian nation? We’ll explore the answers to these questions in upcoming articles as we continue our series on statelessness.


Further reading: