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Statelessness

Posted by Flux on 

16 March 2021

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are at least 10 million people worldwide who are stateless. While still a significant global challenge, nations are beginning to grant citizenship to such individuals living within their borders. 

The international legal definition of a stateless person is one “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. They are denied the basic rights of citizens, such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. 

Statelessness has been gaining momentum on the international human rights agenda since the UNHCR launched the #IBELONG campaign in 2014 to end statelessness by 2024. Marking the sixth anniversary of the campaign, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urges nations to end statelessness in order to meet the 2024 deadline.

On 12 December 2020 Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta granted members of a stateless Shona community full citizenship. Thousands of members of the Shona community came to Kenya from Zimbabwe as missionaries in the early 1960s. They came with their Zimbabwean passports and were registered as British subjects. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, they had two years to register as Kenyan citizens but many didn’t understand the implications and missed this deadline. Without Kenyan identity cards they were excluded from many of the tools required to flourish, and, as a community, they lived in abject poverty. Oliver Muregerera, the leader of the Shona tribe says, “We have lived in Kenya for many decades and we have been fighting for this to happen. We have gone through a lot. Now we have managed to get citizenship.”

According to the UNHCR, Côte d’Ivoire has 1.6 million stateless people. It is the first country in Africa to formalise the process of granting citizenship to them. The plan was approved on 2 September 2020, with two commissions being set up to aid people seeking legal status in the country. Aissatou Ndiaye, Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Bureau for West and Central Africa says, “This is a huge leap forward. We commend the bold action taken by Côte d’Ivoire and its firm commitment to tackle this issue.” 

At the end of January this year Iceland became party to the United Nations treaties to counter statelessness. “We welcome Iceland’s accession, which brings the world one step closer towards ending statelessness,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR Director of the Regional Bureau for Europe.

In December 2020, Turkmenistan granted citizenship to 2,580 people from 19 ethnic backgrounds, 60% of whom were women. The central Asian state has been hard at work over the past fifteen years to eradicate statelessness. In July 2020 a new law was introduced which ensures that all children born in the country are registered, regardless of the citizenship status of the parents. 

The UNHCR has estimated that there are up to 10,000 stateless people in South Africa. The Constitution of South Africa and the South African Citizenship Act guarantee citizenship upon birth. However, we have not yet acceded to the UNHCR’s Statelessness Conventions and unaccompanied children (separated from their migrant parents, abandoned or orphans) coming from different countries are at high risk of statelessness due to nationality laws not offering them sufficient protection from statelessness.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown more than ever the need for inclusion and the urgency to resolve statelessness. A pandemic doesn’t discriminate between citizens and non citizens. It is not in any state, society or community’s interest for people to be left stateless and living on the margins of society,” warned UNHCR’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, adding that COVID-19 is worsening the plight of millions of stateless people worldwide. 

Many argue that eradicating statelessness is more than a moral imperative. It has the potential to strengthen the economy of a country through a more diverse workforce. Many studies have shown that diversity is good for business.

By Faeeza Khan

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Image credit: Gabriel Rojas 

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