Finding a home for stateless people is easier said than done

And stay out! Gwoeii

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has announced a major campaign, #ibelong, to eliminate statelessness within a decade. A noble aim indeed – but before statelessness can be ended for good, some fiendish political and international problems need to be tackled head on.

According to best estimates, there are around 10m people worldwide who are not recognised as a national by any state. A precise figure is difficult to come up with, since few countries have rigorous and effective procedures for determining whether people are stateless, and because stateless people simply do not fit into the usual processes for dealing with migrants, visitors and refugees in general.

People become stateless for a range of reasons. Nations breaking down has been a particularly big factor, especially since the end of the Cold War; and the persecution of ethnic minorities around the world (such as the Kurds) often extends to deprivation of their citizenship. Obstacles to birth registration are another serious problem – children can easily end up stateless if babies aren’t entitled to nationality of the country where they are born.

Given the worldwide norm that individuals belong to and should in most cases reside in their “own” states, and developed countries’ various efforts to limit resettlement, statelessness is likely to remain an intractable problem for millions of vulnerable people. Even the more modest goal of just making sure stateless people aren’t also “rightless” is a daunting task indeed.

Crucially, eliminating statelessness does not just mean giving people the right to go back to where they come from, since they will often find themselves without any other rights if and when they get there. Instead, resettlement and international protections are the key to making sure stateless people’s rights are protected in earnest.

The problem is that stateless people are a serious worry for the states where they could resettle. Border authorities have always fretted about how to handle “unreturnable” people, and because identity, status, and rights to residence are all so closely tied to nationality, they have had ample means to bump stateless people onwards rather than taking them in.

The first step to solving the problem is recognition, which essentially means finding more ways for stateless people to acquire some kind of official status. This is already supposed to happen. It is enshrined in the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which requires states to “regularise” people’s status, and to treat them like regular aliens rather than as “international orphans”.

But stateless people do differ from regular aliens in that they are undeportable – once they have formally arrived, they cannot easily be turned away. By definition, and unlike asylum seekers with citizenship of their own, the stateless cannot legally “return” anywhere. That greatly worries potential host states, who have no desire to become “dumping grounds” for other countries’ unwanted minorities.

That in turn has created a perverse incentive for states under political pressure to cut down on immigration to turn stateless people away before they can become residents in legal need of regularisation.

Ill-advised and possibly illegal “returns” premised on fictitious, arbitrary relationships between the individual and a particular state are to be expected in the current climate. We are living in poisonously anti-migrant times; all over the West, xenophobia is being stoked by caustic anti-immigrant and anti-human rights rhetoric.

That means UNHCR’s work to greatly improve implementation of the 1954 Convention could be crucial to raising the quality of stateless people’s lives. The work of the agency will play a valuable role in raising awareness of statelessness, and that could do a lot to lower the political costs states pay for regularising stateless residents.

On some measures, things are already improving. It is clearly a good sign, for instance, that the UK finally introduced a formal statelessness determination procedure in April 2013. That procedure was developed out of dialogue with the European Network on Statelessness, Asylum Aid and the UNHCR. It contains many important and useful provisions, and shows how efforts such as the UNHCR campaign really could give stateless people a chance to see their human rights properly protected.

After all, providing alternative homes for stateless people is not only essential to eliminating statelessness in itself; it is a major step on the way to securing universal human rights. That is what makes the shift away from international protection and from resettlement so regrettable. If the whole international human rights programme is to make sense, we urgently need to sort out the way the world deals with those who don’t belong anywhere.