Why statelessness is bad for countries and people

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SAGE OF PEOPLE get a passport and try to get new ones through naturalization. Most people are satisfied with the citizenship they receive at birth – that’s for sure anyway. Or so they think. In mid-February, Nicaragua revoked the citizenship of more than 300 opposition politicians and activists. A few days later Israeli lawmakers gave the government the power to strip Israeli Arabs of citizenship who were convicted of terrorism, served prison time and received money from the Palestinian Authority. Soon after Shamima Begum, who joined the Islamic State in 2015 (IS) in Syria as a 15-year-old boy, she lost her appeal in a British court against the British government to revoke her citizenship. The three repeal countries have been criticized by human rights advocates for adding to the ranks of stateless people, who are estimated to number 15m worldwide. Why is statelessness so harmful?

International law entitles everyone to basic rights, such as freedom of religion and movement. States are responsible for ensuring that people can exercise these rights; citizenship or permanent residency is usually required. Statelessness can therefore put people in a precarious position, making it difficult to obtain basic things that others take for granted, such as health care or a driver’s license. That is why international law guarantees the right of nationality to every person.

And yet it is not fully maintained. Statelessness became a major phenomenon in the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of émigrés who fled the Russian revolution. The Nazis used denial of citizenship as a form of persecution, stripping Jews of their citizenship in 1935. Throughout the 20th century the breakup of ethnically diverse empires led to the creation of nation states that limiting who could get citizenship, causing an increase in statelessness.

Racial or religious discrimination was the main reason. Three-quarters of stateless people are thought to be ethnic minorities in their country of origin. Their treatment varies from place to place. In Estonia and Latvia, hundreds of thousands of Russian residents were denied citizenship after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even though they can do most things except vote. In 1982 Myanmar revoked the citizenship of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people and then deported them, killing tens of thousands. In 2019 India declared 1.9m mostly English-speaking Muslims in the north-eastern state of Assam foreigners – part of a campaign against Bangladeshi invaders.

People without proof of residency can often be stateless: some 1m seafarers, known as the Sama or Bajau, in parts of Southeast Asia do not have citizenship. Another reason for statelessness is gender discrimination written into citizenship law. In 24 countries mothers do not automatically pass on their citizenship to their children. A baby born to, say, a Qatari mother and a deceased or absent Qatari father could be stateless.

Today most stateless people are born without citizenship. A few hundred have been lost because countries consider them a threat to national security, as in the case of Britain, Israel and Nicaragua (the number has increased over the last two decades as concerns about terrorism spread). Many countries simply take away citizenship from dual nationals to avoid people becoming stateless. But sometimes that protection fails or is ignored. In 2019 Australia revoked the citizenship of Neil Prakash, the IS a fighter born there to a Fijian father, on the understanding that he also had Fijian nationality. Fiji later said he was not the citizen. Britain claims that Ms Begum, who was born in Britain, is a Bangladeshi citizen through her parents – but Bangladesh denies that and says she will not be treated as one.

That buck goes against an international consensus that has existed for a long time about non-statehood – that it is in the interest of countries to heal, says Audrey Macklin from the University of Toronto. Citizenship underpins the rights and protections of individuals, and makes it clear which state is responsible for realizing them. If no state claims you, no state has to protect you.

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