We tend to presume that every person in the world has a nationality, a country they can call home. But according to estimates by Refugees International, a U.S.-based advocacy group, between 9 and 11 million people in the world today are citizens of nowhere. Several humanitarian organizations are working with the United Nations and the U.S Congress to address the unique problems of stateless refugees.
A major challenge in tackling the problem of statelessness is that the phenomenon is worldwide. According to Refugees International Executive Director Maureen Lynch, it affects a staggering variety of displaced populations.
"Perhaps the largest number of stateless people can be found in the former Soviet bloc countries," Lynch says, but quickly continues to list populations around the world. "They are also among some of Thailand's ethnic groups; the Bhutanese in Nepal; some of the Muslim minorities in Burma and Sri Lanka; some Palestinians; some in Europe's Roma (Gypsies); the Bedouin in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. [They are] also in the Horn of Africa, and the Bihari and Rohingya in Bangladesh, the de-nationalized Kurds in Syria and also groups in Zimbabwe, people of Indian descent or with links to Malawi or Mozambique? and the list really goes on and on."
Lynch says statelessness is the product of a complex mix of political, economic and social forces that lead to racial and ethnic discrimination, labor exploitation and the displacement of targeted populations. "People can be rendered stateless by political changes or the transfer of territory," Lynch observes. "Sometimes there is this targeted discrimination or expulsion of groups or individuals. There may be just differences in the laws between countries. There may be laws related to marriage or birth registration that cause difficulties. Or if some person renounces his nationality without prior acquisition of another nationality, (he) might become stateless."
Maureen Lynch says addressing the problems of stateless refugees requires the cooperation of all countries with an avowed commitment to protect human rights.
Sarnata Reynolds, Refugee Program Director at Amnesty International, says statelessness itself is a violation of human rights. "Because every one has a right to nationality! And it is incredibly important because many of the international conventions arise from the idea that a state is responsible to its nationals, to provide certain protections and ensure certain rights. So when someone is stateless," Reynolds notes, "that means that no state is actually identifying this person as subject to its protection. And so the stateless person often can't exercise the rights of other people because he does not fall under anyone's convention."
In Washington, two groups of activist U.S. lawmakers -- the Congressional Children's Caucus and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus -- are working to improve the U.S. response to statelessness, in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other concerned organizations. Their initiatives have focused on refugee resettlements wherever possible, the reform of inequitable immigration policies and better monitoring for human rights abuses.
As she did recently at a special presentation on Capitol Hill, Maureen Lynch of Refugees International urges an expanded U.S. role in assisting the world's stateless populations.
"We can really make prevention and reduction of statelessness part of the U.S. human rights agenda around the world," says Lynch, "especially in light of the impact it has on children, youth and families. The U.S. can also provide new funding for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the only agency among the UN with a mandate specifically on this issue."
Lynch also believes that in order to press other governments to cooperate in solving this problem, the United States must become a party to the 1954 U.N. Convention on statelessness, as well as the 1961 convention on the reduction of statelessness.
Sarnata Reynolds of Amnesty International emphasizes that the U.S has a long history of playing a leading role on many human rights issues, and this is another area in which the U.S could play that strong role. "It is important," Reynolds says, "because we have a lot of resources that other countries do not have and we can use these resources in ways that can benefit some of the most vulnerable populations around the world.
Amnesty International, Refugees International and other humanitarian organizations acknowledge that states have the sovereign right to set the rules for acquiring and losing citizenship. But they point out that today, disputes over nationality and citizenship can only be addressed by the same governments that regularly violate norms of state protection and citizenship. Human rights groups are urging the U.S. State Department and the U.S Congress to apply stronger diplomatic or economic pressure on those governments that fail to honor the legal right of all people to a nation they can call home.