Global Policy Forum

Plight of the Stateless


By Navina Vemuri

June 17, 2008

They are the forgotten and the excluded; they are the people without citizenship, stripped of their rights and dignity - they are the stateless. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are a total of 15 million non-citizens in at least 60 countries around the world. While most human rights groups focus on the types of abuses non-citizens suffer, statelessness is too often not addressed.

Perhaps one of the most powerful examples is that of the Biharis, a minority Urdu speaking population, also known as stateless Pakistanis. Refugees International estimates that there are 300,000 Biharis situated in 66 severely overcrowded camps in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). When civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan, the Biharis, who lived in East Pakistan, sided with West Pakistan. However, in 1971, when Bangladesh declared independence, neither country wanted to grant the Biharis citizenship.

For almost 37 years, these Biharis have been forced to live together, sometimes in huts no bigger than 8 by 10 feet. Their children are deprived of an education and forced to labor under harsh conditions. Unclean water contributes to a variety of medical problems that remain untreated, as no nearby hospital wants to take in a Bihari. An older man living in one of these camps told two visitors from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2007, "We have been living in Geneva Camp for 36 years and things are going from bad to worse. Please pray for us."

According to UNHCR, there have been some recent political breakthroughs for thousands of stateless people in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. More than 190,000 people obtained Sri Lankan citizenship in just 10 days in 2003; in 2007, 2.6 million people were issued citizenship certificates in Nepal and 160,000 Biharis were guaranteed Bangladeshi citizenship.

Statelessness has certainly not been uncharted territory to the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically underlines that "Everyone has the right to a nationality." There have also been two separate UN conventions focused on statelessness: the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, only 62 countries have joined the 1954 Convention and a mere 34 have joined the 1961 Convention. Neither the United States nor Bangladesh is party to either convention.

Some are stateless because the country of their ancestry was re-created, conquered, freed, divided, dissolved or de-colonized. Such is the case with thousands of people at risk of statelessness in Montenegro, which became independent of Serbia in 2006. Others lose their citizenship because of legislative or bureaucratic miscues, and for some it is a case of migration, refugee flight or ethnic exclusion.

Left without a state, non-citizens are denied their most fundamental rights. Many are unable to go to school, work legally, own property, get married or travel - in some instances even outside of their town. They find it near impossible to open a bank account and, in case of a medical emergency, face countless obstacles being admitted to a hospital. If they are the victim of a crime, they are unable to even file a complaint because officially they do not exist.

Although a few stateless people are refugees, most are not. Refugees are sometimes stripped of their nationality for fleeing their country or as a result of persecution, however many refugees retain their nationality while abroad. Stateless people are often not the victims of persecution and rarely emigrate from their homeland.

Ironically, as globalization is increases, so does the number of people without citizenship. The shifting population and the emergence of new democracies, particularly in Africa - where granting and removing citizenship is used as a political weapon - have contributed to a surge in the number of stateless persons.

Non-citizens are found in every corner of the globe, languishing in some of the most politicized and war-torn areas. Among those affected are nearly 20 percent of the population of Latvia and Estonia and the Bidoon. Subjects of Kuwait's independence and scattered across the Gulf States.

The question remains, if all it takes is a simple citizenship certificate or birth registration, why are there millions of people left stateless? "There's not a lot of pressure on governments to help stateless persons," said Maureen Lynch, director of research at Refugees International in Washington, DC. A survey of the parties to the 1954 and 1961 conventions released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also revealed, "Many states do not have mechanisms which effectively identify cases of statelessness."

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