FOCUS: A Critical Understanding of Statelessness

FOCUS: A Critical Understanding of Statelessness

Tendayi Bloom

There are stateless persons living in every region of the world. The lack of any recognised formal citizenship can exclude them from access both to state systems and to the system of states. Statelessness can put individuals at risk of extreme privations: materially, socially, politically, and in terms of security. In this piece, I ask what this means for the global systems constructed in this way – and what it means for citizenship.

This is the first in a set of essays in this issue of discover Society which argue in different ways for the need to develop a critical understanding of statelessness, and give an indication of what this might involve. It also draws upon the work presented in the new book, Understanding Statelessness, published in June 2017.

Introducing Statelessness
While human rights are usually thought to be universal, in practice enforcing rights often requires a particular state to call upon in a particular situation. This means that the around 15 million people (according to ISI) who lack any citizenship at all are potentially excluded from the most basic of social and State institutions. The reality of statelessness is however, varied. The way in which people become stateless and the implications of statelessness can differ according to context. I will now address these in turn.

First, people become stateless for a variety of reasons. Some, like Ramadan, never made it into administrative systems. Abandoned as an infant, Ramadan’s birth was never registered and he has still not managed to obtain proof of any citizenship. Others lose their citizenship later in life. Consider those who were living as citizens of the Dominican Republic until a change in law deprived them of recognition of that citizenship. Without any other citizenship to call upon, many have become stateless.

Statelessness can result from racial discrimination, then, but it can also result from other forms of discrimination. For example, the Jordanian woman Um Chadi is not stateless, but her children are. This is because in Jordan, as in 27 other countries, women are unable to pass citizenship to their children. This creates a form of intergenerational statelessness. Some populations, like the Rohingya in Myanmar, have been stateless for generations.

Some people become stateless when the arrangement of states changes. This is particularly clear in cases of decolonisation or secession. Situations of conflict, undermining of administrative systems, or large-scale movement can also put people at risk of statelessness.

Second, the implications of statelessness depend largely on context, though there are some continuities. Ramadan, above, describes a fear of detention, which can often be indefinite as there is nowhere to which he can be deported. He has been unable to register life events, like his marriage, and the birth of his children. This is not unique. Recent research from the European Network on Statelessness, for example, identifies detention and the possibility of indefinite detention as a key problem associated with statelessness today.

The case of the Dominican Republic given above highlights another problem associated with statelessness. Such individuals lost the right to remain on the territory of the state where, in many cases, they had been born and the only place where they had lived. This has given rise to deportations to Haiti, but such individuals may well not speak French and are not recognised as citizens of Haiti. Based on her research in the Caribbean, Kristy Belton refers to statelessness as ‘rooted displacement’, one way in which to understand what is taking place here.

A particularly extreme example of the implications of statelessness can be found in the example of the Rohingya population living in Myanmar. While this population have been subject to severe discrimination and violence for several generations, in 2016 one UN official is reported to have commented that Myanmar appeared to want ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya. In February 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) commented that ‘crimes against humanity’ are being committed by security forces in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, and in August 2017 OHCHR reported that the situation was worsening. Indeed, historically, statelessness has often been a precursor of the most serious forms of violence against communities.

In effect, statelessness forces persons to bear the burdens of the state system without mitigation. Exclusion does not only mean not reaping its benefits. It also means being forced to live in a world dominated by states without being included, and without any route for inclusion, within it. Often it is assumed that the problem here is statelessness itself, but perhaps it is not. Perhaps instead we need to problematise the loss of rights that is associated with statelessness and indeed the related assumption that citizenship should be so central to access to core social institutions and to the protection of basic rights.

Why Statelessness?
On the face of it, in the examples above, statelessness arises because of specific instances of discrimination, identifiable administrative problems, changes in border rules, and other identifiable modes of exclusion. But the causation of the same instances of statelessness and the potential deprivations associated with statelessness can also be understood in other ways. Examining statelessness helps us to identify ways in which the existing state system is not working well (as argued by Kelly Staples).

In a forthcoming book, Noncitizenism, I argue that statelessness occurs because the existing state system was never intended to incorporate everyone. And because, as a result, in its current form, it cannot do so. Many people stand outside the state system involuntarily. For example, they are members of groups that lost out at moments when today’s states were mapped, or because existing systems are not capturing them for other reasons. Some disagree with the international order and have no other way to express this except through the denial of the position allocated to them within it.

Statelessness is not always understood in terms of this legal definition that identifies individuals with no effective formal citizenship. For example, it is common to understand statelessness as being about ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’ without any state in the international system of states, and their individual members. In this series and the book to which it relates, other approaches are suggested. For example, Oscar Mwangi suggests that we focus instead on stateless spaces and the implications of this for individuals, whether formal citizens or not.

Human life is much more complex than can be organised according to the arbitrary demarcations of today’s arrangement of states. Yet it is that arbitrary arrangement of states and their memberships that are currently supreme in allocating rights – and it is urgent to ensure that today’s individuals do have a means to access their rights. But in the longer term, rather than focusing on trying to make people fit into the state system, perhaps it is time to recognise the existing system’s limitations and focus on trying to modify it in order to make it fit in with the realities of human life.

This set of articles and the book, Understanding Statelessness with which it corresponds, aim to launch the project of doing just that in the context of statelessness. Through examining realities of statelessness around the world and re-examining theory in this light, the aim is to move towards a critical understanding of statelessness, including of what this means for citizenships and states. This is far from a finished project. The contributors are ‘thinking out loud’, inviting the reader to participate in this urgent and difficult process of rethinking.

Some suggested next steps
There is clearly something problematic going on. Some next steps are suggested in this blog series and they are developed in the corresponding book. For example, Phillip Cole suggests that perhaps citizenship itself is the problem. He argues that liberal theory, including the citizenship that is central to it, is necessarily ‘insider theory’. It is created by, with and for insiders. For him, until we can get past the necessary insider-ness of citizenship, statelessness shows us that it is not going to be possible to have a just approach.

For Katherine Tonkiss, the problem is not citizenship per se, but rather the conflation of citizenship with nationality. She argues that citizenship needs to be seen in terms of political membership, and commitment to political systems. As such, while national memberships have been dependent upon birth and ethnicity, citizenship would be dependent upon political commitments.

Building upon both of these approaches, elsewhere, I argue that more work is needed to acknowledge the rights and claims of stateless persons as noncitizens — recognising the burdens that this puts upon them. I argue that it is not enough to understand the world as one only of citizens. Such an approach overlooks the very real individual-state relationship of noncitizenship.

It is clear that a critical approach to statelessness is needed. With this piece and the series which follows, the reader is invited to join the project of developing this critique and to help to map the next steps that will need to be taken towards a more just world in which individuals are not at risk of extreme privations as a result of statelessness.


Tendayi Bloom is a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at The Open University in the UK. Her work explores questions of noncitizenship, migration, statelessness and justice. The material in this post derives from work presented in the book, Understanding Statelessness, which she recently co-edited with K. Tonkiss and P. Cole. A more detailed treatment of Tendayi’s own position on the nature of the noncitizen-State relationship is developed in her forthcoming book, Noncitizenism: Recognising Noncitizen Capabilities in a World of Citizens.

Image credit: Tendayi Bloom