What Does it Mean to be a Stateless Person?
Writer: Renata Carlos Daou
Editor: Proud Lertprasertkul
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
Statelessness, by the international law definition, is “A person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” Being a stateless person is different than being undocumented. When you are undocumented, you still have the right to said documents. You are still part of a country where you can claim citizenship. A stateless person is not able to get those documents as she/he is not considered a citizen of any country.
This can happen through a series of factors. The person could be a refugee, for example. Refugees are people who left their home countries in an effort to escape war, conflicts, prosecution, among others (to learn more check this article). While crossing international borders, the person is at risk of becoming stateless due to gaps between the laws of the two countries that can differ on how they regard nationality when it comes to birth, gender, sexuality, among others. Other factors can cause someone to become a stateless person, such as discrimination against race, religion, or gender. Some countries limit citizenship depending on the person’s race and ethnicity. 27 countries today don’t allow women to pass down citizenship and in some countries, people can lose their citizenship if they spend too much time abroad.
Today, two main laws grant citizenship around the world. You can get your nationality by the land you are born in or by your parents’ origin. The first one is called Jus soli, which means the law of the soil. Countries that adopt Jus soli have birthright citizenship, which means that citizenship is determined by the place the person was born. Countries like Ecuador, Morocco, India, and the United States adopt Jus soli. The other form of citizenship is Jus sanguinis, which means the right of blood. This means that the person will get their citizenship through their parents or ancestors. Countries like Japan, Italy, Armenia, and Thailand adopt Jus sanguinis. When a child is born in a foreign country that doesn’t permit Jus soli and the country of origin does not allow Jus sanguinis, the child is at risk of becoming stateless. For example, in the 70s there were many people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia immigrating to Italy. However, the children of those immigrants who were born in Italy were not considered citizens, due to Italy’s law that adopts Jus sanguinis.
A real-life example would be Maha Mamo. Her mom was Muslim and her dad was Christian. In Syria, marriage between religions is considered illegal. They left Syria for Lebanon where they got married. However, in Lebanon, their marriage wasn’t registered. Unfortunately, Maha was born in Lebanon where they adopted Jus sanguinis. Since her parents were from Syria, she isn’t considered Lebanese. And since in Syria, her parents’ marriage is illegal, so she isn’t Syrian either. Therefore, she was stateless. Even though she lived her life in Lebanon, she wasn’t documented at all, and this prevented her from living a normal life. She couldn’t participate in official sporting events, she couldn’t go to school or college, get a job, or even go to the hospital. All because she didn’t have any documents.
In 2017, Maha Mamo gave a TedTalk speech in São Paulo. She said that the fact that she was stateless prevented her from doing simple tasks. She couldn't have a phone line, marry, go to a club, and even going to the hospital in Beirut was a difficulty. To try solving her problem and living a normal life, she entered in contact with all embassies that existed in Lebanon to see if any of them could help her. She said that many of them responded saying that they wanted to help her but since she didn’t have a passport, they couldn’t give her a VISA. Brazil was the only country that accepted her case. In Brazil, she is documented; she exists. In return, she had to leave all her life in Lebanon: friends, family, the places she grew up in. She went to a different country where she didn’t know anyone in an effort to belong.
She isn’t alone. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 10 million people around the world are stateless. These people are deprived of basic civil and political rights such as freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary detention, and political participation. As well as socio-economic rights such as education, employment, social welfare, housing, and healthcare.
You can find stateless people in many countries around the world. Reuters made a fact sheet showing where the stateless people were. In Colombia, for example, the law for citizenship is Jus sanguinis. It is estimated that up to 25,000 children born in Colombia with Venezuelan parents, who fled Venezuela to escape the political and economic crisis, are stateless or at risk. In Nepal, due to a law that bans women married to foreigners to pass their nationality to their children, it is believed that possibly hundreds of thousands of people are stateless. In Kuwait, the nomadic Bedouin tribes didn’t get citizenship after the country’s independence in 1961. Because of that, they lack access to free education, healthcare, and many jobs. In the Ivory Coast, descendants from migrants who came to work in the coffee and cotton plantations in the 20th century are now stateless.
The United Nations Refugee Agency established a campaign called #Ibelong that aims to end statelessness by 2024. They have a 10 step plan to end statelessness that includes removal of gender discrimination from nationality laws; prevention of denial, loss, or deprivation of nationality on discriminatory grounds; prevention of statelessness in cases of State succession; among other steps. If you want to take action, donate to the #Ibelong campaign, sign the Open Letter to end statelessness, share the #Ibelong video on statelessness, and share the #Ibelong leaflet to raise awareness.