Statelessness and the trouble with citizenship-as-nationality

Statelessness and the trouble with citizenship-as-nationality

Katherine Tonkiss

Being stateless means lacking citizenship of any country on earth. A stateless person is not a citizen anywhere. But the word ‘citizenship’ arises surprisingly rarely in both academic and non-academic definitions of statelessness. Rather, it’s far more common to define stateless people as lacking nationality of anywhere on earth. I explore the use of nationality as a proxy for citizenship in the field of statelessness, and argue that addressing statelessness successfully rests on a more radical troubling of this ‘citizenship-as-nationality’ model.

Citizenship and nationality
Citizenship and nationality are intertwined concepts. Citizenship is typically defined as membership of a political community, and operates as a gateway to a range of political and social rights in that community for holders of the status. In Hannah Arendts words, citizenship is as such ‘the right to have rights’. Nationality is also a way of understanding membership, but in this case, it is specifically about belonging to a particular national group, with an associated national identity, membership of which often acts in itself as a gateway to citizenship.(1)

The language of nationality is central to international law in the field of statelessness. For example, the 1954 Convention related to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as one ‘not recognised as a national by any state under the operation of its law’, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness reiterates the right to nationality for stateless persons. Furthermore, international bodies tasked with the protection of stateless people, such as the UNHCR, focus on ‘the formal legal bond of nationality’ in their work, with nationality seen as ‘something so natural that people rarely stop to think about what life would be like without it’.

This focus on nationality is also evident in the academic literature on statelessness. While Kelly Staples advocates a language of ‘membership’ rather than nationality or citizenship, hers is a rare account in a field which tends toward the language of nationality rather than citizenship – or, indeed, uses both interchangeably.(2)

In all of these cases, statelessness is defined not as the opposite of citizenship, but as the opposite of nationality or specifically national citizenship. Stateless people are seen as excluded from a recognised nationality which provides a gateway to citizenship, rather than as simply excluded from citizenship more broadly defined. This can occur because they are precluded from holding the nationality of the state in which they find themselves, or because they are a member of a national group which does not have a state associated with it – as, for example, in the case of Kurdish people in Turkey.

(De)constructing citizenship-as-nationality
This dominance of the language of nationality in the field of stateless is perhaps not that surprising. Accessing citizenship in the world today means belonging to a particular ‘nation-state’, and therefore being recognised as a national of that state. Even in exceptional cases such as that of EU citizenship, being a citizen of the EU rests on being a national of an EU member state.

Yet citizenship doesn’t have to automatically refer to national citizenship. Indeed, far from being ‘natural’ as asserted by the UNHCR, nationality is a socially constructed idea and the link between national identity and citizenship is a relatively modern invention. Citizenship has, in the past, existed independently of national identity – think, for example, of citizenship in Ancient Greece or in the city-states of Renaissance Italy. These examples pre-date the formation of nation-states as we know them now, and so of the link between citizenship and national identity.(3)

So nationality, then, is a particular way of understanding citizenship through the prism of national identity. I’ll call this ‘citizenship-as-nationality’. Under this model, national identity and citizenship are tied together so that the key criterion for access to the bundle of rights associated with citizenship is membership of a specific national group.

The trouble with citizenship-as-nationality
If citizenship-as-nationality is only one model of citizenship, rather than the only possible way of understanding citizenship, then we don’t necessarily have to define it in this way. The question then becomes, should we define citizenship through the prism of nationality when it comes to advocating for the rights of stateless people?

Stateless people are prevented from accessing citizenship on the basis that they aren’t seen as holding a recognised nationality. This means that they are discriminated against because their nationality is not recognised by a state as warranting citizenship, or because for some reason they are barred from gaining access to the national group of which they would claim membership. Examples precluding their access to nationality might include discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or gender.

But some would argue that nationality is in itself a source of discrimination. People don’t get to choose where they are born, or the nationality of their parents, and so the nationality that they are born with – or, in the case of stateless people, the nationality they lack. (4) Living in statelessness, as such, means being prevented from holding citizenship and therefore core rights as well as the ability to build a stable and secure life on the basis of an unchosen – and imagined – social category.

As such, the citizenship-as-nationality model has a profound impact on individuals’ lives and the opportunities and deprivations which shape them. Nationalism means ascribing difference on the basis of that national membership, a membership which I have argued, is arbitrary. Ascribing rights according to arbitrary group membership would not seem acceptable with respect to other groups. We wouldn’t, for example, generally find it acceptable to permit discrimination in access to rights on the basis of membership of a specific religious group; yet, this is permitted on the basis of membership of a specific national group.

Advocates for the rights of stateless people clearly find it indefensible to discriminate against stateless people on the basis of their nationality or lack thereof. Yet, by using the language of nationality when advocating for the rights of stateless people, these advocates legitimise the reproduction of the very system which serves to exclude stateless persons. I would argue that claims for the rights and inclusion of stateless people as legitimate members of political communities will be at least in part self-defeating if they do not challenge the citizenship-as-nationality model.

In short, if advocating for stateless people means arguing for them to be able to access nationality, it is an argument for their inclusion into a discriminatory system which will continue to perform a discriminatory function. Using the language of nationality reproduces many of the assumptions at the core of the national citizenship model – assumptions based on a form of arbitrary discrimination which allocates rights to some individuals and denies them to others based simply on the luck of holding a nationality that is associated with a functioning citizenship. Accounts which draw on the language of nationality can only be partially successful in tackling statelessness because they continue to view access to the rights of citizenship through this inherently exclusionary model.

As a consequence, we need to think more radically about troubling this model. That is not to suggest that there is no place for national identity, but rather to argue that there is a need to subject the relationship between national identity and citizenship to greater critique. A good starting point in this endeavour would be to move away from the language of nationality to a language of citizenship when advocating for the rights of stateless people.

(1) See also Miller’s On Nationality
(2) For example, Blitz and Lynch refer to citizenship and nationality interchangeably, while Kingston defies statelessness as ‘the arbitrary deprivation of nationality’ and Batchelor focuses on the importance of granting nationality to stateless persons.
(3) For discussion of the historical antecedents of citizenship before nationality, see Maurizio Viroli’s For Love Of Country, or Jürgen Habermas’ essay on citizenship and national identity.(4) Not all individuals are born into statelessness. See, for example, recent changes to nationality laws in the Dominican Republic which have stripped thousands of individuals of Haitian descent of their Dominican citizenship.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. Her research explores migration rights, post-nationalism, citizenship and belonging. @ktonkiss. For more on this research, see Tonkiss, K. (2017) Statelessness and the Performance of Citizenship-As-Nationality. In Bloom, T., Tonkiss, K. and Cole, P. (eds.) Understanding Statelessness. London: Routledge. 

Image Credit: ‘National Identity Card’ by Sam Greenhalgh (2006)