Why statelessness?

By Laura van Waas · 28 November 2013
Throughout my participation in the OECUMENE project, I have endeavoured to help shed light on different aspects of the issue of citizenship by way of an analysis, from different angles, of the phenomenon of statelessness. In this context, a question which I have repeatedly asked and answered is ‘why statelessness?’ The very first time I confronted this question was when I was choosing a subject for my doctoral research a full decade ago. The issue of statelessness had literally revealed itself to me: I had no prior knowledge of its existence, no inkling that a person could be without any nationality, when a man came to me for help and it transpired that his new-born son was stateless. I was finishing my law degree at the time, when at the refugee legal advice centre where I volunteered, a man entered one morning, brandishing a letter. The letter was addressed to his several-week old baby boy, informing him that he had no right to be in the country and must leave immediately. After delving into the details of the case and the reason behind this letter from the immigration service, it became clear that the little boy was a victim of a conflict of nationality laws. While no particular country wished him ill, the circumstances of his birth were such that none appeared immediately responsible for him either (despite both of his parents holding a nationality themselves). He remained unclaimed. Without a nationality. Stateless.
I can still recall the shock and indignation I felt at this discovery and as I went on to write in the opening pages of my PhD, the very first answer to the question ‘why statelessness?’ was, for me, that it demands attention because it is ‘a real, human dilemma for this one boy and his parents’. Prompted by this immediate concern, further reading and a better understanding of what I was looking at led me to add a broader reason to focus my research energies on statelessness, as I am again reminded by the introduction to my own PhD: ‘statelessness is (still) an international problem of significant magnitude and severe consequence: two facts that immediately imply that the international response to the issue is failing in some way’. I felt compelled to find out exactly what that international response was and try to understand why it had yet to be fully successful. My PhD research provided me with some answers, but ultimately raised a great many more questions.
And so it is that ever since that first encounter with statelessness, the more I learn, the more I feel compelled to look further, dig deeper. My list of answers to the question ‘why statelessness?’ grows ever longer. It includes, for instance:
-          Because… statelessness must be eradicated for the universal promise of human rights to be realised, since some human rights may be reserved to citizens, and is therefore one of the purest human rights challenges there is;
-          Because… statelessness affects enough people to fill a small country (not actually a suggested solution!) and by sheer weight of numbers demands our attention;
-          Because… an estimated half of the world’s stateless population are children and the vast majority of new cases today involve children who start out life without a nationality and we must work to make it even clearer why this is unacceptable;
-          Because… nationality is a man-made phenomenon and statelessness the sometimes unforeseen, sometimes tolerated, sometimes deliberate, but always entirely solvable, by-product of the way we have constructed our world.
Over the course of blogging for OECUMENE, some further reasons have come to the fore. For instance, as I set out in my first contribution towards this project, for those who study citizenship, statelessness may hold the key to understanding its mechanics, sentiments and power: ‘statelessness is the ultimate case study for scholars of citizenship, since it exposes the very nature of this form of membership and demonstrates the dangers inherent in implementing a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’’. I still firmly believe that no study of citizenship can be complete without due consideration for those who are stuck on the outside of the system, looking in. In later blogs I looked, for example, at how systems have been developed when called for to bypass or diminish the effects of the severe form of exclusion that manifests itself in statelessness, including in the example of a stateless person competing as an ‘Olympic citizen’ in the world’s most prestigious sporting event. A stateless person can still be recognised for the athlete he or she is underneath that legal/bureaucratic status. A stateless person can still be recognised as a human being and treated as such. That too, along with the very resolution of statelessness, is within our collective power yet somehow fascinatingly and deplorably beyond our reach in so many situations. I have also examined how new layers of citizenship are forming, supra-nationally, for instance within the European Union, seemingly picking apart the dichotomy citizen – stateless. There is great promise in such a reconfiguration of membership and belonging, along with the attendant rights and duties, for our understanding of citizenship and for addressing statelessness. Yet, in practice, although the rhetoric is one of supra-nationality, the system itself is better described as ‘nationality plus’: already a national, you are also a supra-national, or EU citizen, but the stateless once again are left on the side-lines.
So ‘why statelessness?’… because it gives us pause to look at these and other emerging phenomena and to pose critical questions, perhaps to one day uncover new insights that will help to bring the stateless themselves in out of the cold, to finally resolve the human dilemma for that one boy and the millions more like him.

About the author

  • Laura van Waas

    Activist Consultant
    Laura van Waas
    Tilburg Law School
    Laura van Waas holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Her doctoral thesis, entitled “Nationality Matters – Statelessness under International Law... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

This website is maintained by the Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University · Website privacy at the OU

Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)ERC: European Research CouncilThe Open University