The Unseen Refugee – The Plight of Stateless Persons

Despite increased media and public attention on the refugee situation the issue of statelessness continues to be underpublicized. The plight of stateless persons is often overlooked both in international society and in international law. A stateless person is defined as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under operation of its law”. In a state centric world it is his nationality that gives an individual the “right to have rights”, therefore stateless persons are in a very vulnerable position. At least ten million people worldwide are currently stateless. There is no one cause of statelessness, rather a number of interrelated causes. Ten reasons that persons become stateless are officially listed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These are: conflict of laws, transfer of territory, laws related to marriage, administrative practices, discrimination, laws relating to registration of births, jus sanguinis, denationalisation, renunciation of citizenship, and automatic loss of citizenship by operation of law.

The problems faced by stateless persons on account of their stateless status can be divided in two – the individual’s treatment by the state in which they reside and the individual’s inability to present his claim for an evil suffered upon them in or at the hands of a state. The largest problem facing stateless persons is most often their deprivation of basic rights. A stateless person may be unable to access education , employment , housing, public healthcare and welfare opportunities within their state of residence. The right to own property or a business may be denied. A stateless person may not have any civil or political rights such as the right to vote and access to courts. An example of this occurred in Estonia in 2001 when statistics suggested that the criminal justice system of the state was not giving stateless persons equal protection before the law. Another fundamental civil right denied to stateless persons is the right to enter and leave ones country. A serious problem for stateless persons is prolonged periods of arbitrary detention. This often occurs when a stateless person leaves their country of residence in search of greater protection elsewhere and without documentation is unable to return. The detaining state is unwilling to allow the stateless person to live in their state yet cannot deport them as they have no state to be deported to. To resolve this the detaining state may deport the person to another state regardless of that state’s unwillingness to receive the stateless person therefore when they are deported the person ends up detained in another state. Stateless persons may endure years of arbitrary detention being transported from state to state. All these injustices which are suffered upon stateless persons are exacerbated by the stateless person’s inability to bring the state to account. Many of the individual institutions which adjudicate claims against states such as the International Court of Justice  are barred to individuals.

International Law and individual countries need to step up and provide greater protections for stateless persons. Stateless persons are often stuck in an endless cycle in that their status deprives them of a voice and without this voice they cannot get a change in their status. As international attention to the plight of refugees fluctuates we must hope that some of attention falls upon stateless persons.  While in recent years improvements in provisions for stateless persons have occurred, particularly regionally, there is a long way to go.

Article by Niamh McGurk

Photograph – The New York Times

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