What Does Statelessness Mean?

What does it mean to be stateless?

A stateless person is not recognized as a citizen by any state. This is important because citizenship is the essential foundation of a person’s legal identity. It is your right to have rights. Citizenship enables you not only to vote, hold public office, and exit and enter a country freely, but also to obtain housing, health care, employment, and education. Citizenship is necessary in order to live a decent human life. Stateless people are denied that right.

Who is stateless?

Statelessness is a problem of global dimension. It affects 15 million people around the world from the Kenyan Nubians in Africa to the Thailand Hill Tribes in Asia to Dominicans of Haitian-descent in the Caribbean. Although some stateless people are refugees, many have never crossed a border or left their country of birth. Yet around the world, although the problems related to statelessness may manifest themselves differently, at the root is a group of people who have been denied a legal identity.

Why should I care?

Stateless people suffer terrible personal consequences. Often they do not have the ability to go to school, access healthcare, or obtain a job. And stateless people are more vulnerable to violence and other rights violations.

Beyond the individual human toll, statelessness has social and political dimensions as well. Statelessness is often an underlying factor in civil conflicts, human rights violations, and insecurity among states. Armed conflict and insecurity do not stay confined to different parts of the world. Everyone has an interest in ensuring human security and citizenship for all.

What is the role of citizenship in an open society?

Citizenship is integral to an open society. Everyone—regardless of their legal status—has a right to fundamental conditions of human decency. Open society embraces the notion of human community, to which statelessness is antithetical. All persons have a right to participate in the communities where they live, and stateless persons are denied that right.

What can be done to solve this problem?

The world has a long way to go before the right to citizenship is assured. Too often the focus has been on the consequences of statelessness—human trafficking, discrimination, armed violence—rather than on eliminating statelessness itself. There are several things we can do in order to help make this right a reality.

We must document the problem. We still have only estimates of the number of stateless people around the world. Documentation can demonstrate the scope and significance of the problem, as well as the fact that statelessness appears to be growing.

We need to get existing institutions to act more effectively on behalf of the stateless, whether the U.S. Department of State—which only recently took on the task of including in its annual country reports on human rights practices the issues of citizenship or statelessness—or the United Nations Human Rights Council, which should appoint a special rapporteur to report annually on the situation of the stateless around the world.

We need to do a better job at ensuring that national and international laws make it easier for people to become citizens and make it harder for states to deny or deprive people of citizenship.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to combat statelessness?

The Open Society Foundations are working on the problem of statelessness in a number of ways: documenting the plight of stateless people through official reports and documentary photography; partnering with local advocates to bring lawsuits challenging citizenship discrimination; and advocating for change in international bodies such as the United Nations, the African Union, and the U.S. State Department. Finally, the Open Society Foundations try to amplify the voice of stateless people by providing a platform from which they can share their stories.