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'It's a Form of Torture': UNHCR Launches Campaign to Eradicate Statelessness

VICE News spoke to UNHCR's head of communications about the problem of statelessness and the agency's effort to end it.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 4 2014, 6:15pm

Image via UNHCR/Nevenka Lukin

At least 10 million people around the world are currently classified as "stateless," with 600,000 of them in Europe. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a child isborn without a nationality every 10 minutes.

Though individuals have purposefully become stateless in some cases — American-born Garry Davis famously renounced his citizenship to highlight his belief that erasing nation-states would eliminate wars — most people in that circumstance aren't given a choice.

"Statelessness can mean a life without education, without medical care, or legal employment," UNHCR said in an open letter published by the Guardian on Monday. "It can mean a life without the ability to move freely, without prospects, or hope. Statelessness is inhumane."

To combat this, the refugee agency has announced a new campaign aimed at ending statelessness worldwide within the next 10 years.

VICE News spoke with Melissa Fleming, UNHCR's head of communications, about the problem of statelessness and the agency's campaign to end it.

VICE News: What is statelessness and whom does it affect?
Melissa Fleming: Statelessness is a situation where a person has absolutely no nationality from any country, and it affects people who have survived different legacies. For example, the break-up of countries after wars: the break-up of the Soviet Union, the break-up of Yugoslavia. They could be ethnic groups that aren't recognized by the country that they're living in. There is another situation where in 27 countries mothers are not able — because of the laws — to pass their nationality to their children. So this is an important problem. I'm especially looking at the Syria situation right now, where a lot of women are fleeing or have lost their husbands and have no documentation, or their children are unable to get nationality.

Syria's isolated refugee women face a dangerous and humiliating battle. Read more here.

What are some of the implications of this?
The implications are enormous. If you don't have the recognition from a state that you are a national then you very often have no rights to the most fundamental services — for example, putting your kids in school, the right to a job, the right to a hospital. What stateless people often tell us is it feels like they don't exist. The problem is that they have to somehow struggle to survive. The other problem is the legacy of it. It's self-perpetuating, so generations after generations of people are stateless and they can't get themselves out of it.

'We believe it's in the self-interest of countries to make sure that everyone living in their country is a national, or to make sure they can get a nationality from the country they originated from.'

Do you believe that everyone has the right to be a citizen of a state?
Absolutely. Everyone has the right to belong, and the problem is that 10 million people right now are in a situation where they have absolutely no legal identity, no passport, no ability to take part in elections, and very few have the opportunity to get an education — so it can be considered in a way as not only an injustice, but for stateless people they feel like it's a form of torture.

Do you think states are deliberately refusing to recognize a lot of these people because they don't want the burden of being responsible for them?
Well, there are certain states that have made the decision that it's better to leave these people in legal limbo. We argue that it's much better to give every person living in your country some kind of status, because marginalizing people and pushing them down can only erupt in frustration and could also become a national security concern. So we believe it's in the self-interest of countries to make sure that everyone living in their country is a national, or to make sure they can get a nationality from the country they originated from.

LGBT asylum seekers say they face homophobic abuse in UK detention centers. Read more here.

Do you find any need to differentiate between people who are forced to be stateless, and those who choose to renounce their state for political reasons?
Nobody we have ever met who is stateless wishes to be living in this condition. They feel extremely deprived and they feel discriminated against, and very often it's something that could be rectified so easily. That's why we feel it's really time to try and make a push. We're seeing some progress in some countries to stop the scourge of statelessness, but sometimes it's just a couple of words in a law that need to be changed. So we have to overcome this resistance and to believe that it's a win-win — it's good for everybody.

I know various countries have considered revoking the passports of citizens who leave their countries to fight in foreign wars. Legislation was recently introduced in the United States to revoke the citizenship of people who join or help designated terrorist groups that intend to attack the US. Are foreign fighters a group of people that you're considering?
It's up to every individual country to make that decision, but there's a clause in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and it does say that first of all there is a basic rule that no individual may be deprived of nationality if they will be left stateless. That's the founding principle. However, there is one exception, and that is that an individual may be deprived of his or her nationality even if they would be left stateless if they have conducted themselves in a "manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the State." So this could cover acts of treason, espionage, and — depending on their interpretation — also terrorist acts.

And that's not something that you're speaking out against?
No. We're not speaking out against this.

UNHCR tripled its spending on combating statelessness between 2009 and 2014. What's this money being spent on?
A lot of advocacy. We've been working with governments on legislation and to take measures needed to reduce statelessness. We also provide legal advice to stateless people, so we've really made a big push. It's part of UNHCR's mandate — we're known for refugees but we also have a responsibility to advocate for the rights of the 10 million stateless people in the world, and we decided we have to invest much more in creating the climate, the awareness, and the measures and procedures needed to reverse their situation.

The UN is often criticized for being all talk and very little action. Do you think that countries will implement the recommendations in your report, and will there be any repercussions if they don't?
Well, I don't think anyone has ever accused UNHCR of little action. We're one of the top-operational organizations in the world. We're not very headquarters heavy, and are working in the field very closely with people and with populations and with governments. So I think a lot of the problem is that statelessness has been so under the radar-screen of the world, and people don't really know about it and most governments don't see it as top priority.

We're trying — through advocacy, through this campaign, through awareness, through getting really influential people around the world to sign on — we're trying to create the momentum and the pressure to get the governments who can make a real difference in people's lives to reverse this injustice, to turn around the situation. And there has been progress in countries from Bangladesh to Côte d'Ivoire to Kurdistan [a stateless nation] to Turkmenistan. And there's been progress on the woman issue in many countries — there used to be many more than 27 countries that wouldn't allow women to pass their nationality down to their children. So in a way we felt that for a long time there was no movement at all on statelessness, but now it seems like there's a willingness among countries to do something, and we want to take that opening and make a big push.

Here's another sobering United Nations report on climate change. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd