There are millions of invisible people in the world. These are people who have no country, no legal status, and no nationality. They are stateless, not recognized as citizens anywhere in the world. It’s hard to imagine the precariousness of not having a citizenship because it is given to us at birth and rarely questioned or changed, especially if one is born in a first world nation.

“Some 12 million people do not have the right to be recognized as citizens of a country which can have a traumatic result… not having any papers, not having a legal identity, not having the right to have your children in school, or to go to the public health services, not being allowed to own property or to work legally, being jailed and not having anybody to protect you. These situations can indeed cause enormous suffering.” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), explained to me the ramifications of being a stateless individual.


Photo Ben Horton

Because stateless people are marginalized they can be easily exploited. Lacking legal rights and a voice, they are much more susceptible to arbitrary or prolonged detention. They are also prime candidates to become victims of human trafficking.

In Thailand, young stateless girls from minority ethnic groups not recognized by the Thai government are targeted by traffickers for prostitution. According to the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities website (DEPDC), a non-profit center working in Thailand, “Girls as young as 10 years old have been sold into the brothels of Bangkok and other cities in the region and even overseas. In some areas as many as 90% of girls have left their village to work.” Stateless parents, lacking education and job opportunities, are often forced into borrowing money. To pay back the debt parents are asked to exchange their children to work in beauty shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, rather than being placed in a legitimate business as promised, the children end up imprisoned in brothels working as sex slaves, enduring horrific physical and mental abuse.

“One of the most painful things to witness in the case of statelessness is the way it denies a person the chance to develop,” said Maureen Lynch, consultant for International Observatory on Statelessness and former Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives at Refugees International. “Being denied the ability to contribute, and seeing their life going to waste is one of the most disturbing things. It’s heart-wrenching, actually, because they could do so much for the global good,” Lynch told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are numerous reasons why millions are stateless. Often it is due to ethnic or racial discrimination that is entrenched in politics. “We have in Myanmar an ethnic group of Muslim Bengalis that the Myanmarese political establishment does not consider to be citizens of Myanmar, but they have been there for centuries. They are part of the social and economic structure of the country. They have nowhere else to go and to be recognized as citizens in any other country. And so they became stateless…,” said Guterres.

In addition, many countries have citizenship laws that discriminate against women. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 30 countries, mostly in the Middle East, where only the fathers can pass on their nationality to their children. “In the last 10 years, 10 countries have changed their laws allowing for this equality to be established, namely in Northern Africa — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt,” said Guterres. “But we hope other countries will follow the same path. A meaningful number of people find themselves in a situation in which they have no nationality just because their father is unknown or disappeared or there is not the capacity to prove his identity.”

Yet statelessness is not limited to the developing nations. Between 1967 and 1981, a quarter-million persecuted Jews were permitted to leave USSR by way of Vienna and Rome. Their Soviet citizenship was stripped as they left the only country they have ever known. Thousands of these families lived for months in Italy stateless, hoping for permission to enter countries like Canada, Israel, and the US. Since USSR didn’t allow the Jews to return, many of the elderly took the risk of traveling across the world in order to be with their families. Those too ill or too old died making the trip.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia separated into different states, ethnic groups such as the Roma were defined as “non-citizens”. Even today, each new successor State claims the “non-citizens” belong somewhere else. Moreover, there are thousands of stateless people in the most advanced countries in the world such as Japan, Germany and Sweden. Many are stuck in legal limbo, desperate for help.

Most recently, UNHCR is working with government of Sudan and South Sudan (formed on July 9, 2011) to ensure that the nationality legislation of the two states will not leave anyone out.

Global climate change may end up being a contributor to statelessness. The UNHCR is looking into the future for the citizens of States such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands who may have to abandon their own country one day. “One of the impacts of climate change is that some island states might disappear. We need to look into the right to preserve the right of a national identity, the right to a cultural identity”, Guterres said.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia separated into different states, ethnic groups such as the Roma were defined as “non-citizens”.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of the Stateless. Out of the 193 UN member States, only 38 States are parties to it. Not surprisingly, many of the countries with the largest stateless problem are absent from the list. “We are making a huge effort at the present moment to convince countries to ratify the 1961 Convention, adopt legislation, to respect dignity of these people and to find a solution,” said Guterres. “There have been a lot important successes in the recent past. Nepal has granted nationality to 2.6 million people. Bangladesh with a landmark decision of the Supreme Court granted nationality to the Biharis. Other important moves have taken place in Brazil. Lots of positive steps are also happening….”

In early December, UNHCR will host a ministerial-level conference to review the Convention and urge more States to make the commitment to protect those without a voice. “Countries should ratify the conventions and adopt national legislation to grant people the possibility of having a nationality. At the least, we want countries to provide stateless people access to the services, even if they do not have citizenship”, said Guterres. “Stateless people are hidden….It’s the most forgotten human-rights problem in today’s world.“

Editor’s note: in 2004 Steven Spielberg directed a clever, funny movie entitled The Terminal that featured Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski. While Navorski is in the air on his plane ride to New York there is a military coup in his home country of Krakozhia. Since after the coup the United States no longer recognizes Krakozhia as a sovereign nation, Hanks is not allowed into the US, but he can’t go back to his own country either so he is forced to live in the terminal at JFK airport. The Terminal may have been based on the travails of Mehran Karimi Nasseri who lived in the airport terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France for eighteen years.