Viewpoint: Vision Reconfiguration – statelessness as forced displacement

Viewpoint: Vision Reconfiguration – statelessness as forced displacement

Kristy A. Belton

Tell me when it was you decided where to be born. Tell me when it was you decided whom to be born to. Tell me, in effect, what it was you did to merit the citizenship that you hold.

It’s a funny thing this status we call citizenship. We don’t tend to give it too much thought. We accept that when we are born we should be identified as belonging to a particular State through birth on its territory or because we were born to someone who is a citizen of that State. We accept that birth certificates, passports, national identity cards and the like should serve to identify who we are and where we are from. We rarely question that these State-issued documents of belonging should condition our ability to obtain certain State services or to enjoy the rights, freedoms and protections that are associated with holding citizenship from one State over another. In effect, the web of “people ordering” that States have created to encompass the globe through their nationality laws and practices seems to work almost effortlessly.

Except when you fall through it. Then you realize how difficult it is to actually formally belong anywhere.

While the vast majority of us are citizens of somewhere, an estimated 10 million people worldwide are not. They are stateless and face some of the most debilitating problems you can imagine. Think of nearly any activity that requires proving who you are. The likelihood is that the stateless person is going to be unable to open that bank or library account, get that credit card or cell phone, buy that house or car, apply for a job or a loan, receive social security or a scholarship, travel overseas or register the birth of a child. You get the picture. The kind of activities that we take for granted as citizens of somewhere can become insurmountable obstacles when you belong nowhere.

In some cases, statelessness not only translates into a lack of citizenship or a legal identity, but it can also place a person in the highly precarious position of being vulnerable to human trafficking, indefinite detention and a host of other human rights violations. That is, if you are unaccounted for, if you do not have a State that can extend diplomatic protection or to which you can be “returned,” the world becomes an exceedingly hostile place.

To be stateless then – unrecognized as officially belonging to any State – is to be bordered in a thousand other ways.

So how did we get here, to this place where some people are noncitizens everywhere? While the result is everywhere the same – formal exclusion from belonging to a State – the paths to this point are many. In some cases, people are born into statelessness. They might be born in a country that does not allow citizenship through birth on its territory and their parents, for any number of reasons, are unable to pass on their citizenship through descent. Maybe they inherited statelessness from parents or grandparents who were unable to register themselves as citizens when the State they were born into formally began to register its citizens. Perhaps they were born in a country that refused to recognize them as citizens at birth – even though the law said they should be – because they were of a different skin color, ethnicity or religion to the majority population. Or maybe they were born to a mother who is a citizen of a country that continues to discriminate between men and women in the right to pass on nationality to their offspring.

It could be that an individual is rendered stateless later in life. Perhaps they were born in a State that ceased to exist, but has instead become a series of other States, none of which wants to recognize the person as a citizen. Maybe an individual goes to renew a passport or get some other State-issued identification and the State official, after taking whatever proof the person has of existence as a citizen, then refuses to issue the other identity document and does not give the person back her or his original proof of citizenship. Or maybe some law strips a woman of citizenship when she marries a foreigner and, unable to secure citizenship in the country of her husband, or having lost it upon divorce, she now formally belongs nowhere.

I could keep going, but, again, you get the picture. What might not be so readily apparent, however, is that these people are being forcibly displaced. They are made stateless.

When we typically think about forced displacement, images of people fleeing their homes – whether within their State’s borders as internally displaced persons (IDPs), or across borders like refugees – often come to mind. We think of camps, conflict or crisis of one kind or another and the need for humanitarian aid. We don’t think about the stateless.

But maybe we should.

Just like other forcibly displaced persons, stateless people are displaced from a home. Through no choice of their own, they are made to exist in the netherworld of formal exclusion from the State whose territory they were born into or reside upon. This displacement engenders a host of issues not unlike that faced by other forcibly displaced persons. The stateless’ ability to be self-determining agents, capable of pursuing their life’s goals is severely circumscribed. Their susceptibility to rights violations and impingements upon their freedom is pervasive. Their reception by the societies in which they live is often hostile. They are, in effect, displaced in place.

Unlike IDPs, refugees or other forced migrants, however, the majority of stateless people are non-movers. Most continue to reside within the State of their birth, even though the latter denies or deprives them of citizenship. In contrast to other types of forced migrants then, they cannot point to a “national home” where they are formally recognized as belonging. The psychological implications of having never belonged anywhere – or of having one’s citizenship taken away later in life – can have a tremendous impact on the stateless’ psyche, identity and self-worth.

The displacement the stateless face then is no less real – and no less debilitating – than that faced by other forcibly displaced persons. But because the means by which the stateless are forcibly displaced – gaps in nationality laws, inefficient bureaucratic procedures and registration failures, among others – lack the “emergency” nature that we typically associate with other types of forced displacement, their plight often goes unnoticed. Where’s the (visible) crisis?

Also, because the type of forced displacement they face is generated by democracies and non-democracies alike, we do not recognize statelessness as a human rights and a human security problem even when it exists in our midst. Democracies do not forcibly displace persons do they?

The stateless thus become doubly displaced: once from the realm of formal belonging to a State and then, secondly, from our vision of people who need support in the face of forced displacement.

Maybe if we understand statelessness for what it is – a form of forced displacement that occurs in place – we can correct our myopia and dedicate the necessary attention and resources to addressing the needs of the stateless as we do for other types of forcibly displaced persons.


For more on this research see Belton , K. (2015) Rooted displacement: the paradox of belonging among stateless people. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 907-921.

Kristy A. Belton is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Human Rights Center of the University of Dayton. She has been working and publishing on statelessness for over a decade and is the recipient of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015 Award for Best Doctoral Research on Statelessness. This article highlights aspects of her most recent publication, see Belton, K. (2015) Rooted displacement: the paradox of belonging among stateless people. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 907-921. A special issue of the journal on noncitizenship.


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