- Jane Hilgert
There is a heart beat. Good , strong, steady. A chest rises as air fills the lungs. Blood is being pumped through the veins. And not only does this person’s body fulfill all necessary functions to be considered living, the brain is fully functional. If given a stimulus, the body responds, if given food, it metabolizes, if the skin is cut, it will bleed. Unmistakably, this is a human being that is alive, a person - someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s partner. A person that has laughed, grieved, envied, enjoyed, persisted. And yet, this person does not exist.
Not because they are fictitious, not because for the purposes of this piece a conceptualized personification was needed to really tug at the reader’s heart strings, but because this person does not exist in any legal system in the world. This person does not have a nationality, they are considered stateless. For decades now, the international community has regarded statelessness not as the all encompassing human rights issue that it is but merely as a bureaucratic, at best technical, issue which does not require the attention or effort of global governance. Per definition, nationality falls within the sovereignty of each nation. So why should the United Nations or the Human Rights Council dictate which individual will receive citizenship with all encompassing legal rights by a nation? Who made them the judge of each nation’s decision to grant (or deny) someone their nationality? Isn’t that a vast overreach of these international and regional bodies that have little to no binding power upon a state anyway? Why does this state matter have any relevance for these bodies at all?
To find answers to any of these questions, first, understand that statelessness does not solely affect individuals. Whilst yes, the existence of Mehran Karimi Nasserin, or as you probably know him, the Terminal Man in Charles de Gaulle airport is (almost) universal knowledge at this point, and there is no overstating how tragic the story of a man trapped in an airport for eighteen years up to his death is, statelessness must be seen holistically and as the oppressor it is.
Shamima Begum was 15 years old when she left, or perhaps was made to leave, the United Kingdom, and alongside 550 other women from other western countries traveled to Syria to marry fighters of the Islamic State. This particular ISIS bride was once again heard of in 2019, when she told reports in a refugee camp in Syria that she wishes to come home. The UK government decided to revoke her British citizenship on the grounds of her being a national security risk due to her ties to the terror group and she lost the appeal in February of this year, making her effectively stateless. And whereas her lawyers are gearing up for yet another appeal, the currently held ruling may endanger not solely Shamima’s citizenship but may set a precedent that could cause many British citizens to have their nationality stripped from them. The particular group affected, according to UK immigration lawyer Bhangal, would be all British citizens born to parents that have immigrated to the UK that may commit a crime, as they may be seen as a threat to national security. Meanwhile, a British offender whose parents were also born in the United Kingdom, may retain their citizenship when committing the same crimes. Statelessness is a threat being held over only those with family history of migration in the United Kingdom, should there be no overruling of the Begum case.
But people do not merely lose citizenship as a punishment for their crimes, some are born as a legal impossibility, with no room in the letter of the law to spell out their names, rights and citizenships. For instance, up until 2015, all second born children in China had no rights to exist and if found out, the parents were heavily fined, oftentimes at rates that would far superseed the annual income of the parents. But that is not where the punishment ends: the one child policy has caused individuals born in China to Chinese parents to be born into statelessness in their own country, solely because their mother had given birth previously. In 2015, when the law was amended to allow for two children, an estimated 6.5 million individuals did not receive any recognition as Chinese citizens as they were born outside of the governmental family planning rules, even though they should be eligible for citizenship as they are born in China with not just the required one, but in fact two Chinese parents. Whereas de jure the second born children are still entitled to their hukou, akin to a residence permit, de facto most of them do not have papers as government officials withhold them to punish the non-abiding families or families do not apply to circumvent the heavy fines.
But statelessness is not exclusive to a group within a state, it may even affect what one may call the state itself: The largest stateless population is that of the Rohingya people, which have been stripped of their nationality since 1982. Despite the Rohingya never having left Myanmar, the then introduced law made citizenship dependent on being part of a Myanmar national race to which they did not count the Rohingya. The government of Myanmar has shown no intention of remedying this issue, but instead have sought to further discriminate against, and even persecute, the Rohingya in their own motherland. And even attempts at refuge often do not result in any official recognition of the legal existence of a Rohingya. Many have fled to Bangladesh, a refugee crisis that was informed by the consistent persecution and was triggered in 2016, when Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya took on what the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. However, Bangladesh is not stable enough to receive all these refugees and furthermore does not have an adequate immigration system, as one is solely entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through marriage or with one Bangladeshi parent. This leaves the children born to the Rohingya in Bangladesh yet again stateless, as there are no citizenship rights to be derived by being born in Bangladesh.
All of the stateless mentioned are suffering for the same reason: they are not citizens, meaning they are not entitled to education, healthcare, they may not marry, work, travel or in any other way enjoy the rights and duties any person should receive. There is no state to protect them, to ensure that they may live a life that adheres to fundamental human rights, they are forced to live without anyone acknowledging their existence, without any possibility to help themselves, their families, or their children. Thus, the international community must step up, as without bodies such as the Human Rights Council, their life will continue to be one of limbo: of being every bit as alive and human as you or me and yet completely deprived of what that should mean. Their parents can never register them for school, they can never give a health insurance card to the reception at the doctor’s office, they can never have a license, they can never vote or buy things that may be age restricted as there is no ID to check, they can never hand over passports at flight check-in. They will never rummage through a wallet or bag and have the privilege of all the rights and liberties attached to hearing: “Papers, please.”
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.