A Theological Exploration of Statelessness: Part 2- Statelessness in the Lebanese Context

Much of my 2015 was spent looking at two important topics: statelessness and faith.  The following is a section of my graduate thesis for a Master of Religion at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  While grounded in the specific context of Lebanon, the research is relevant to greater discussions on statelessness and displacement.  This Part 2 discusses statelessness in the Lebanese context.

Section One: Statelessness in the MENA Region

Lebanon is, by all accounts, a diminutive country filled with grand complexities in an ever-dynamic region. A myriad of political, religious, social and historical forces contribute to chronic problems of statelessness, and many hundreds of thousands of residents currently have no claim to citizenship.  Understanding the Lebanese context requires first examining the regional state of statelessness.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region features a dire statelessness situation.  Estimates place the number of (non-Palestinians) stateless at 444,237, though limitations in data and reporting suggests that the actual number is higher.[1]  Numerous factors contribute to this figure.  One is statelessness stemming from 20th Century state succession when newly drawn nation-states implemented nationality laws that excluded certain groups.  Measures frequently failed to incorporate nomadic communities unaccustomed to the new political realities of the region, thus leaving large groups of people without citizenship.  In some situations states targeted groups or individuals for nationality omission or denationalization in order to manipulate demographic balances or boost national security.[2]  Discriminative laws that deny women the right to transmit citizenship have compounded statelessness, and in this regard “the MENA region has unfortunately been slower to achieve reform of nationality laws to reflect international standard.”[3]   Additionally, the region’s extensive refugee and displacement situations exacerbate the threat of statelessness.  This includes the exceptional case of more than 4 million stateless Palestinian refugees, a topic that will receive further attention later.   Intensifying armed conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War, and ongoing waves of mass displacement mean the region “now faces the prospect of adding hundreds of thousands to the stateless population.”[4]  In a part of the world wrought with challenges, statelessness is a crisis of immense, intricate and increasing dimensions.


Section Two: Developments in Lebanese Nationality

Lebanon’s statelessness scope is difficult to determine. All demographic figures in Lebanon are, at best, rough estimates- no official national census has been conducted since 1932- and collecting stateless numbers is problematic for the reason noted in the previous chapter.[5]  Even in the absence of suitable data, it can be confidently said that Lebanon has a significant stateless population with estimated numbers in the range of 80,000-200,000 persons (excluding stateless Palestinians).[6]  The problem stems from a complex convergence of forces including the exclusion of ethnic communities, gender discrimination in nationality laws, and high rates of human displacement.  Many of the root causes of statelessness can be traced to Lebanon’s historical development over the past century.

Lebanon has long exhibited a diverse collection of religious sects (mainly Christian and Islamic) and ethnic groups joined in a knotty relationship of shared nationality.  Throughout centuries of Ottoman rule (15th -20th Century) political positions were often selectively assigned to reflect religious demographics, and Lebanon emerged from her colonial experience by drafting a constitution that maintained many core elements of sectarianism.    Though originally meant to be a temporary measure, confessionalism became the enduring framework of the Lebanese political system and a primary shaper of national realities.[7] The subsequent drama has been a “game of numbers” with nationality policies plagued by “legal and administrative misuses aiming to modify the demographic balance between sects and, accordingly, obtaining a larger share of power.”[8]  This delicate arrangement of religious demographics and its political implications remain an essential backdrop for any survey of statelessness in Lebanon.[9]

Current Lebanese citizenship laws trace their origins back to guidelines defined in the French High Commissioner’s arête n° 15/S issued on January 19th, 1925.[10]  The document established the policies for nationality transmission, naturalization and denaturalization that continue to be administered today.  As far as nationality laws are concerned, “the main provisions have not changed since 1925.”[11]  Arête n° 15/S determined jus sanguinis as the primary means for acquiring Lebanese citizenship; jus soli applies in very few cases while naturalization is subject to rarely-applied executive decision.[12]

The census of 1932 served as the basis for Lebanon’s initial allocation of nationality, yet the very endeavor of the census previewed a Christian-Muslim rift that has persisted throughout the state’s nationality debate.  At the time, the two groups espoused differing terms for determining a national.  The Christian position ultimately prevailed and successfully included selective migrants so as “to secure a Christian demographic majority.”[13]  Individuals that did not meet the qualifications were considered foreign and denied nationality.  This included predominately-Muslim groups that had boycotted a 1921 census (thus failing to receive the ID cards needed to prove permanent residency), migratory communities and Kurdish refugees among others.[14]   The sectarian-fueled ‘game of numbers’ had been played and many came out of the contest defeated and stateless.

Some de jure stateless have lived in Lebanon with ‘under study’ (jinsiyaa qayd a-dars) or ‘no nationality/without records’ (maktoumeen al qayd) statuses.  This classification permits legal residency, movement across borders, and access to some public services but denies full citizenship rights.[15]  Many Bedouin fell into this category after failing to receive nationality following the 1932 census due to being physically out of the territory during seasonal migration or refusing to register as an act of protest against French colonial involvement.[16]  This led to chronic statelessness among an estimated 100,000-150,000 person Bedouin population.[17]  The Dom, or Gypsy, communities in Lebanon were likewise largely excluded from citizenship as ‘under study’ residents.[18]  Kurds are another ethnic group in Lebanon that has been marked by statelessness.  Large numbers of Kurdish refugees arrived during the mid-1920s after fleeing Turkish Kurdistan[19] and many failed to receive nationality.[20]   These groups are among the communities that have suffered from “living beyond the ‘boundaries’ of government services- despite being an ethic group indigenous to Lebanese territory even before the existence of the Lebanese state.”[21]

Lebanese nationality laws have remained largely unchanged since 1925 but the situation has not been wholly static.  Limited reforms mean that “courts have played an important role in interpreting citizenship,” and doors to naturalization have opened at different points.[22]  Selective granting of citizenship has sometimes been a method used by powerful state-players to extend political and economic interests, and “it is commonly admitted that Christians and members of the upper classes were more likely to obtain citizenship.”[23]  One noteworthy event in recent history occurred with the 1994 Naturalization Decree when the government widely made citizenship available to non-Lebanese.  The action addressed statelessness by awarding Lebanese citizenship to an estimated 108,000 -220,000 individuals- of which two thirds were Muslim and one third Christian-[24] but “approximately half of those naturalized already held a foreign nationality so the measure was not solely targeted at remedying statelessness.[25]  Many de jure stateless individuals, including significant numbers of Bedouin, Dom and Kurds,[26] saw their ‘understudy statuses’ transitioned to full-fledged citizenship, though not all were able to capitalize on the opportunity.[27]  As can be expected, the decree met fierce opposition.  Such drastic flux in the “game of numbers” led many Christian leaders to fear “that the decree was a threat to the existence of Lebanon, as it aggravated the demographic marginalization of [the Christian] community.”[28]  An appeal was issued in 2000 by the Lebanese Maronite League against the 1994 Naturalization Decree, and citizenship has been withdrawn in a number of cases.[29]

De facto statelessness is widespread in Lebanon with numerous factors contributing to its prevalence.  Among the causes are unregistered births.  Many have access to citizenship- either Lebanese or another nationality- but are unable to realize this due to births that were never properly registered.  Statelessness can result if the problem is not remedied.  Acquiring nationality in Lebanon requires more than simply attaining a birth certificate since births must be recorded “in a civil register by the applicable government authority, allowing verification of each child’s identity, age, and status as a child.”[30]  If a birth is not registered within the first year of a child’s life then a lengthy petition process through the courts must be conducted.   Failure to do so may result in a child never being considered a national by authorities.[31]   Additionally, children risk statelessness if their parents are not married (including marriages that are not officially registered) or if parents themselves are stateless.[32]

Many cases of Lebanese statelessness result from nationality laws that discriminate against women.  The 1925 Nationality Law Article 1 establishes paternal jus sanguinis by declaring anyone with a Lebanese father, whether residing in Lebanon or abroad, a Lebanese national.[33]  Despite ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women– which states in article 9 (2) that “State Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children”- Lebanon does not allow women to give citizenship to their children nor their husbands.[34]  It is one of only 27 countries that prevent women from transmitting nationality.[35]  The child of a Lebanese mother that does not, or cannot, acquire the citizenship of the father becomes stateless,[36] and only in rare cases can a Lebanese woman pass citizenship.[37]  Lebanese law does permit jus soli nationality in rare cases- such as the case of foundlings of unknown parentage- and naturalization can occur by presidential decree or if a foreigner is deemed to offer Lebanon “exceptional services.”[38]  Even so, any acquisition of citizenship by means other than paternal jus sanguinis is extremely rare.

Growing public pressure has materialized in recent years to reform nationality laws and grant Lebanese women equal rights to men.  Campaigns by advocacy and NGO groups have helped bring the issue to policymakers’ attention; three proposals between 2010 and 2013 were submitted to parliament though none were approved.[39]  Despite no reform to nationality laws, the government has taken steps to address the situation, and as of April 2010 foreign children of Lebanese mothers have been able to apply for renewable three-year residency permits.[40]


Section Three: Palestinians in Lebanon and Emerging Threats of Statelessness

As previously mentioned, the Palestinian refugee situation presents an exceptional case of chronic statelessness.  The crisis remains one of the most complex and tragic quandaries of the last century as more than half of eight million global Palestinians suffer as de jure stateless persons.[41]   Lebanon hosts an estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees,[42] the majority of which trace their personal or ancestral displacement to the events of 1948 when some 100,000 individuals fled from Palestine to Lebanon.[43]  Most reside in twelve official refugee camps, which have become increasingly hazardous due to high population densities, deteriorating infrastructure, and restrictions on implementing development.[44]  Palestinians in Lebanon fall into three primary categories of classification: refugees registered with the UNRWA[45] and Lebanese authorities, refugees registered with the Lebanese authorities but not the UNRWA, and non-ID refugees.  Lebanon is a signee to a number of treatises outlining the provisions for rights and privileges of Palestinian refugees living in Arab states;[46]  however, the reality is Palestinians remain an excluded and marginalized segment of Lebanese society.  Palestinians cannot access public healthcare, cannot claim social security, may not be allowed to enter public schooling, and are severely limited in vocational opportunities.[47]    Studies have shown that “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the worst socio-economic situation in UNRWA’s five areas of operations” and feature the highest rates of Special Hardships Cases.[48]  Discrimination, harassment and detention by security forces are commonplace.[49]

The legal standing of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon reveals a deteriorating trend.  In 1987, Lebanon rescinded its signing of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, essentially “cancelling all socio-economic rights previously granted to Palestinians.”[50]  1995 legislation introduced a law requiring Palestinian refugees to show exit and entry visas when traveling in and out of Lebanon.[51]  The government issued a Tawteen (settlement) in 2001 that made citizenship a requirement for land ownership, effectively prohibiting Palestinians from owning or inheriting property.[52]  Additionally, laws were made in 2010 allowing Lebanese mothers to give their foreign children three-year renewable residency permits but the provision does not apply to children of Palestinian men.[53]  Attempts to improve the status of Palestinians in Lebanon are faced with widespread resistance by power-players seeking to maintain a status-quo; “any question of granting them rights is seen as a step toward permanent integration.”[54]  As victims of statelessness, they “are the first to pay the price for political instability and insecurity in the countries where they find themselves.”[55]  Amidst the many layers of the Palestinian tragedy, statelessness stands as an especially severe dilemma.

The drama of forced migration to Lebanon has entered new phases in recent years and with this a growing threat of statelessness.  Since the outbreak of civil strife in 2011, an estimated 1.1 million Syrian refugees have taken residency in the country.[56]  Lebanon now boasts the highest global per capita concentration of refugees in the world with nearly a quarter of her population consisting of Syrian refugees.[57]  An often overlooked ramification of the displacement crisis is the heightened risk of statelessness.  According to a U.N. study, more that 36,000 Syrian refugee births in Lebanon have gone unregistered, meaning tens of thousands of children lack any form of identity documentation.[58]  Gender discrimination in nationality laws only exacerbates the threat.  Like Lebanon, Syrian citizenship is granted strictly through fathers and, with “some 25 percent of Syrian refugee households without fathers to help verify nationality,” acquiring or proving a child’s citizenship can become extremely problematic.[59]  As regional conflicts continue unabated, the threat of statelessness among displaced populations is as real as ever.  It is, unfortunately, another chapter in Lebanon’s ongoing statelessness narrative.

Lebanese statelessness demonstrates a perfect storm of political, social, religious and historical forces converging to create a perpetuating human rights crisis.  The causes may be complex and the potential solutions controversial, but the bottom line is hauntingly simple: hundreds of thousands of individuals in Lebanon are struggling to exist without belonging.

[1] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, The World’s Stateless, (Oisterwijk, The Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2014), 105.
[2]Laura van Waas, The situation of stateless persons in the Middle East and North Africa, (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010), 2.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Omer Karasapan, “The state of statelessness in the Middle East,” Brookings, May 15, 2015.  http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/future-development/posts/2015/05/15-middle-east-refugees-karasapan (accessed June 9, 2015).
[5] The UNHCR does not report a figure for numbers of stateless individuals in Lebanon.
[6]Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion, 107.
[7] Melkar El-Khoury and Thibaut Jaulin, “Country Report: Lebanon,” (Florence: EUDO Citizenship Observatory, 2012): 6.
[9] Noted Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi appeals to the metaphor of a “game” when explaining the historical sectarian attitudes that dominate the Lebanese state, which can be seen vividly in the handling of nationality.  He explains Lebanon’s historical national development as such: “What was involved was a political game rather than an honest transaction; and this game, as all others, was played out at the expense of the real national interest, and regardless of the dangers involved to all concerned.  On both sides, there were the professionals and accomplished amateurs who played the game, and for the masses that cheered or booed as the occasion called for; and from time to time these masses descended into the arena to join forces with the players.  The plain fact was that most of the Lebanese, no less than their leaders, were more concerned with the game than with the national interest, and their wild clamours encouraged the leaders to play the game hard, and way beyond the limits of safety.” (Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998), 199).
[10] It is worth noting that the practical framework of Lebanese nationality laws goes even further back to early 19th century. The  arête n° 15/S “is based on the Ottoman nationality law of January 19th 1869, which created the Ottoman citizenship and was based on the French civil code of 1803.” (El-Khoury and Jaulin, 3).
[11] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 3.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 7.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid, 11.
[16] Dawn Chatty and Nisrine Mansour, “Bedouin in Lebanon: statelessness and marginality,” Winter Newsletter  Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University (2011): 5.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Terre des Hommes. “The Dom people and their children in Lebanon.” (Lausanne: Terre des homes, 2011): 18.
[19] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 7.
[20] Frontiers Ruwad Association.  Invisible Citizens: A Legal Study on Statelessness in Lebanon, (preliminary edition, November, 2009), https://frontiersruwad.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/invisible-citizens-a-legal-study-on-statelessness-in-lebanon/ (accessed March 12, 2015), 8.
[21] Chatty and Mansour, 5.
[22] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 5.
[23] Ibid, 10.
[24] Ibid, 11.
[25] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 108.
[26] Frontiers Ruwad Association, 8.
[27] There remain an estimated 10,000-15,000 stateless Lebanese Bedouin (Chatty and Mansour, 5) while an estimated 21% of Dom (out of a 3112 surveyed) remain without citizenship. (Terre des hommes, 18)
[28] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 12.
[29] Ibid.
[30]Betsy Fischer, “Why Non-Marital Children in the MENA Region Face a Risk of Statelessness,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, January 6, 2015, http://harvardhrj.com/2015/01/why-non-marital-children-in-the-mena-region-face-a-risk-of-statelessness/ (accessed June 10, 2015).
[31] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 108.
[32] Frontiers Ruwad Association, 8-9.
[33] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 13.
[34] Ibid, 23.
[35] Zahra Albarazi and Laura van Waas, “Towards the Abolition of gender discrimination in nationality laws,” Forced Migration Review 46 (2014): 50.
[36]Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 108.
[37] This includes cases when a child’s father is unknown and the child is claimed by the mother when still a minor, or in cases when the woman is a foreigner who receives Lebanese citizenship following the death of the child’s father.  This former example is ever-ironic since “the law gives naturalized alien mothers and their minor children an advantage over Lebanese mothers and their children” in regards to passing citizenship. (Frontiers Ruwad Association, 5)
[38] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 14-16.
[39] Mira Saidi, “Lebanon’s sexist citizenship law hurts mothers and babies,” Aljazeera America, May 10, 2015, final edition, aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/5/lebanons-sexist-citizenship-law-hurts-mothers-and-babies.html (Accessed July 15, 2015).
[40] El-Khoury and Jaulin, 25.
[41] Abbas Shiblak, “Stateless Palestinians,” Forced Migration Review 26, (2006): 8.
[42] As reported by the UNRWA, Where We Work, www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon (accessed December 9, 2015.
[43] Sherifa Shafie, “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” Forced Migration Online, July 2007: 6, http://www.forcedmigration.org/research-resources/expert-guides/palestinian-refugees-in-lebanon. (accessed My 23, 2015)
[44] Ibid, 8.
[45] The term to denote the United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East
[46] The most notable of these documents is the 1965 Casablanca Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinian Refugees in Arab States.
[47] Statelessness bars Palestinians from entering many professions since “labour law stipulates that only members of Lebanese professional associations can receive licenses in order to work in any skilled profession… [and] as stateless persons, Palestinians cannot form associations.” (Shafie, 11-13).
[48] Shafie, 5.
[49] Ibid, 9.
[50] Ibid.
[51] The order was eventually eased in 1999 but the decision is indicative of generally degrading attitudes and policies towards Palestinians. (Shafie, 12).
[52] Shafie, 14.
[53] Saidi.
[54] Shafie, 10.
[55] Shiblak, 9.
[56] This figure accounts only for those registered with the UNHCR (1,078,338 out of a global total of 4,290,332 Syrian refugees as of September 30, 2015); there are estimated to be many more displaced Syrians that are not registered with the U.N.  (UNHCR, Syrian Refugee Regional Response, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php (accessed July 28, 2015)).
[57] World Food Programme, Lebanon: Syria Crisis Response, (July 2015), http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/WFP%20Lebanon%20Situation%20Report_July%202015.pdf (accessed August 9, 2015).
[58] The report explains that Syrian parents in displacement may not register newborns for a number of reasons, including fear of visiting the Syrian embassy, a lack of knowledge on the registration process, or parents themselves are without the sufficient documentation to prove their own nationality or proof of marriage. ( Al Rifai, Diana. “UN: 36,000 newborn stateless in Lebanon.”  Al Jazeera, May 11, 2015, final edition, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/150506060248502.html, (accessed July 28, 2015).)
[59] UNHCR, I Am Here, I Belong, 23.

A Theological Exploration of Statelessness: Part 1- Introduction to Global Statelessness

Much of my 2015 was spent looking at two important topics: statelessness and faith.  The following is a section of my graduate thesis for a Master of Religion at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  While grounded in the specific context of Lebanon, the research is relevant to greater discussions on statelessness and displacement.  This Part 1 post introduces the topic of global statelessness.

Nationality is a universal human right of immense practical and theoretical implications. The significance of belonging to a nation-state can hardly be overstated; however, many millions lack any form of official nationality and live in a condition known as statelessness.  Without a claim to citizenship, “a stateless person is seen and treated as a foreigner everywhere, as a national nowhere.”[1]

Since its rapid emergence in the mid-20th Century, statelessness has remained a conundrum for the global community.  The problem is theoretically solvable but entrenched in deep-seeded political, social and legal complexities.  This is certainly the case in Lebanon where a myriad of causes converge to deny mass numbers of stateless individuals the fullness of rights and opportunities.  Local and international organizations are increasing efforts to remedy statelessness though comprehensive solutions are proving elusive.

Statelessness is at its core a theological dilemma.  This study aims to present a unique voice by exploring the issue through the lens of faith.  It begins with an overview of global and Lebanese statelessness then explores biblically-based theological dimensions of the problem.  Finally, the study provides theoretical concepts and practical measures for faith communities as they engage statelessness and stateless individuals.


Statelessness as a Global Phenomenon


Nationality as a Human Right and Statelessness as a Violation     

Nationality[2] is a fundamental human right and a crucial aspect of functional existence in the modern world.  Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality,”[3] thus establishing individual entitlement to an officially recognized relationship with a nation-state.[4]  This formal arrangement of mutual obligation forms what the International Court of Justice calls “a legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interest and sentiments, together with the existence of reciprocal right and duties.”[5]  Nation-state membership holds major bearing on individual identity in both practical and theoretical ways, yet many millions possess no citizenship of any kind.  This is a condition known as statelessness and its consequences are immense.

In theory, everyone possesses international human rights regardless of citizenship status; however, the reality of today’s global system of nation-states is that “recognition of nationality serves as a host of other rights.”[6]  Political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) underlines the sheer importance of citizenship when arguing that official nationality essentially gives “the right to have rights.”[7]  Consequently, the stateless are among the world’s most vulnerable individuals and communities;[8] exclusion from the international system of nation-states leads to a precarious existence.   This is underscored by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gueterres when he states, “statelessness is a profound violation of an individual’s human rights.  [It] makes people feel like their very existence is a crime.”[9]

Statelessness has long-reaching personal impact.  Countless privileges and opportunities that most take for granted are denied or restricted to those lacking citizenship.   Many basic life-practices, such as gaining legal employment, attending school and university, owning property, voting, traveling, banking, or participating in the justice system, are not possible without nationality.[10]  Life’s most sacred experiences, such as marriage or raising a family, are complicated by statelessness, and marginalization can extend even to the deceased.[11]  Particular situations may vary by context but the result is the same: stateless individuals “face an extreme form of exclusion that impacts both their sense of dignity and identity, and their ability to exercise even the most basic human rights.”[12]  The condition leaves victims increasingly vulnerable to drastic threats including labor abuse, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and arbitrary arrest and detention.[13]  In countless ways statelessness denies basic human rights and undermines individual human security.[14]


Defining Terms

Defining technical terms is important to discussing statelessness.  The working definition of statelessness derives from the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a landmark treatise that ushered the phenomena onto the international stage.  Among the legacies of the convention, its “most significant contribution to international law is the definition of a “stateless person” as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.””[15]  The stateless fall into two primary categories: de jure (in law) and de facto (in fact).  De jure statelessness occurs when someone does not qualify for nationality under any government’s laws and therefore has no possible claim to citizenship.[16]  Examples include discriminated ethnic or social communities enduring generational exclusion from state-membership, such as the Bidun of Kuwait[17] or the Rohingya of Burma[18]De facto statelessness results when people have a claim to formal nationality but do not enjoy access to it, thus leaving them “unable to rely on their country of nationality for protection.”[19]  Such individuals cannot “obtain proof of their nationality, residency or other means of qualifying for citizenship and may be excluded from the formal state.”[20]   De facto statelessness may occur when a child’s birth is never registered (meaning the child is without documented identity) or when the process of transmitting nationality from parent to child is uncompleted. [21]  The distinction between de jure and de facto statelessness is problematic since conventions and governments have, at times, narrowed their consideration of statelessness to that of de jure only.  However, “there is growing awareness that de facto stateless people are unable to realize their human rights and may be equally vulnerable for lack of effective protection from the state to which they have a formal connection.”[22]  This paper will include de jure and de facto statelessness in the same discussion since both entail the effective absence of the rights and privileges attached to citizenship.

It is important to identify the stateless as a distinct type within the wider category of non-citizen, which is defined as “a person who has not been recognized as having effective links to the country where he or she is located.”[23]  While non-citizens in general are vulnerable to “official and non-official discrimination,” stateless persons are particularly disadvantaged.[24]  Many migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other types of non-citizens may exist in precarious situations but they can at least claim official belonging to a nation-state.  The stateless have no such claim.  They are effectively “denied membership of every one of the world’s states and cast into an officially-sanctioned, legal limbo.”[25]

Nationality is an international right but its mode of transmission is subject to the laws of sovereign nation-states.  Nationality laws function to establish the legal relationship between an individual and a state based on a “social fact of attachment,” or genuine link.[26]  States determine genuine link by two predominant means: jus soli and jus sanguinis.  Jus soli (law of the soil) is based on location of birth and grants nationality to those born within a particular territory.  Jus sanguinis (law of blood) builds nationality on parentage; genuine link is based on familial heritage, which essentially grants children the citizenship of their parent(s).  These two principles form the backbone of citizenship laws,[27] and some states include a combination of the two.[28]  Statelessness emerges when someone is unable to prove a genuine link within any state’s system of nationality laws.


Causes and Scale of Statelessness

A number of primary causes create the global phenomenon of statelessness. One is gaps within and across nationality laws and the lack of measures to address them.  If countries do not set up safeguards to account for policy irregularities then “the regular operation of these states’ nationality laws can leave people stateless.”[29]  This can be exacerbated when institutionalized discrimination denies citizenship to particular groups.[30]  Systems may also implement discriminatory gender-bias laws that prevent women from passing nationality to their children; stateless cases emerge if a child lacks sufficient proof of a father’s nationality or when a father is himself stateless.[31]  Statelessness can also transpire in situations of state succession “when part of a state secedes and becomes independent, or when a state dissolves into multiple new states” and certain groups or individuals are not included in the emerged nationalities.[32]  Other cases surface when the documentation necessary to prove a genuine link to nationality is absent. For example, vulnerable communities (such as the extreme poor or displaced) may lack the means to properly register a marriage or birth, which can result in a child becoming de facto stateless.[33]  Yet the predominant cause of contemporary statelessness is inheritance.  Countless individuals and communities find themselves stateless from aforementioned reasons and, when no actions are taken to remedy the problem, their statelessness is perpetuated to proceeding generations.[34]  The fact remains that statelessness is a truly solvable problem; however, its causes are burdened by many intersecting legal, social and political dynamics that have proven formidable to overcome.

Measuring the global scale of statelessness is admittedly problematic- as can be expected considering it requires counting people that, effectively, do not exist- but available data does provide measurement of the phenomena.[35]  Recent research by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion estimates that there are more than 15 million[36] stateless individuals in the world today, which added together would amount to the 70th largest country by population.[37]  Numbers reveal an uneven distribution throughout the globe; UNHCR figures indicate that 97.6% of stateless cases are concentrated in a mere 20 countries. [38]  Though a precise picture is difficult to attain, it can be confidently said that statelessness is a massive international predicament with a global spread.  And the crisis continues to increase rapidly; researchers argue that “a stateless child is born somewhere in the world every ten minutes.”[39]


Past and Present Actions Addressing Statelessness

The 20th Century produced two documents that serve as primary guides in efforts to curb and eliminate statelessness: the aforementioned 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.  The former treatise addresses the treatment of stateless persons by emphasizing the “immediate need to improve the legal status and secure the… basic rights for the existing stateless populations around the globe.”[40]   The latter presents the principles for the “reduction and indeed eradication of statelessness itself.”[41][42]  More than a half-century on, these conventions remain the most comprehensive and current global frameworks for addressing statelessness and the marginalization of the stateless. However, the documents boast a regrettably low number of signatory states; only 65 countries have ratified the 1961 Convention while the 1954 Convention has a slightly more respectable 86 countries. [43]

Comprehensive movement to confront statelessness has been slow to take shape. Despite its global scale and severity, it remains “an example of a social problem that has not yet fully emerged onto the international human rights agenda.”[44]  The issue’s complicated nature and the lack of a “quick-fix” solution has contributed to a “lack of political will for eliminating statelessness.” [45]  It remains largely underreported, misunderstood, and only minimally addressed,[46] but emerging initiatives give hope that a shift in global response is underway.

2014 may be remembered as a turning point in the effort to fight statelessness.   September saw the first ever global forum on statelessness, a three-day event at The Hague that gathered hundreds of international participants.[47]  Then in November the UNHCR revealed an aggressive Global Action Plan[48] “to bring an end to statelessness within 10 years by resolving existing situations and preventing the emergence of new cases of statelessness.”[49]  A #ibelong campaign was simultaneously launched on social media to raise awareness and generate popular action.[50]  Equally valuable was the founding of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, a Netherlands-based “independent non-profit organization dedicated to promoting an integrated, human rights based response to the injustice of statelessness and exclusion.”[51]  It is among the foremost non-governmental entities championing the stateless cause via trainings, networking and research.  The world is at a critical junction and the potential to address, even eliminate, statelessness is being realized in dramatic ways, but significant work remains to be done.


[1] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, The World’s Stateless, (Oisterwijk, The Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2014), 11.
[2] Nationality and citizenship are terms that will be used interchangeably in this paper, as is frequently the case in academic literature.
[3] The right to nationality is affirmed by numerous authoritative decrees, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 7), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 24), American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (Article 19), European Convention on Nationality (Article 6), Covenant on the Right of the Child in Islam (Article 7), Arab Charter on Human Rights (Article 29), ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (Article 18) and many others.
[4]Frontiers Ruwad Association.  Invisible Citizens: A Legal Study on Statelessness in Lebanon, (preliminary edition, November, 2009), https://frontiersruwad.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/invisible-citizens-a-legal-study-on-statelessness-in-lebanon/ (accessed March 12, 2015), 3.
[5] As quoted in Blitz, Brad K. Forced Migration Policy Briefing 3: Statelessness, protection and equality. (Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, September 2009), 21.
[6]  Indira Goris, Julia Harrington and Sabastian Kohn, “Statelessness: what it is and why it matters,” Forced Migration Review 32, (2009): 4.
[7] Hannah Arendt, Origins or Totalitarianism (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1958), 296.
[8] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 32.
[9] Quoted in Amelia Gentleman, “UN refugee agency launches global campaign to end statelessness,” The Guardian, November 10, 2014, final edition. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/04/un-refugee-agency-global-campaign-statelessness (accessed February 3, 2015).
[10] Marion Couldrey and Maurice Herson, “From the editors,” Forced Migration Review 32, (2009): 2.
[11]Some places require citizenship in order to receive proper burial and funeral procedures. For a detailed account of statelessness’s impact after death see the article “Do Stateless people have a right to die?” in the European Network on Statelessness for an example of statelessness’s impact after death. http://www.statelessness.eu/blog/do-stateless-people-have-right-die.
[12] Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion, 32.
[13] Nicole Green and Todd Pierce, “Combating Statelessness: a government perspective,” Forced Migration Review 32, (2009): 34.
[14] As the Commission on Human Security claims: “Citizenship…determines whether a person has the right to take part in decisions, voice opinions and benefit from protection and rights granted by a state.  But the outright exclusion and discriminatory practices against people and communities-often on racial, religious, gender or political grounds- makes citizenship ineffective.  Without it, people cannot attain human security.” (New York, 2003)
[15] UNHCR, “Introductory Note,” 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Person, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2014), 3.
[16] Blitz, 7.
[17] Some 100,000 Bidun individuals in Kuwait have long been denied official citizenship.  In one interesting search for a solution, the government proposed granting its Bidun population economic citizenship to the Comoros while allowing residency in Kuwait. “Kuwait’s stateless Bidun ‘offered Comoros citizenship.’” BBC News, November 10, 2014, final edition, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29982964. (Accessed May 21, 2015).
[18] The Rohingya are a Sunni Muslim, ethnic minority group of some 725,000 individuals in Burma and Bangladesh.  They have been widely persecuted and denied citizenship for generations. (Chris Lewa, “North Arakan: an open prison for the Rohingya in Burma,” Forced Migration Review 32, (2009): 11.)
[19]Laura van Waas, Nationality Matters: Statelessness Under International Law. Dissertation (Tilburg: University of Tilburg 2008), 20.
[20] Blitz, 1.
[21] For example, the writer is a foreign national residing in his wife’s country where nationality laws do not allow mothers to transfer nationality to their children.  Upon the birth of their daughter it was imperative to make an application through the embassy in order for his nationality to be passed on to the child.  Failure to complete this process or meet the nationality requirements set by his state’s laws would have left his daughter at risk of never receiving citizenship and becoming de facto stateless.
[22] Blitz, 7.
[23] The term includes migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, victims of trafficking, foreign students, and temporary visitors.  The UNHCR estimates that 175 million individuals, or 3% of the global population, qualify as non-citizens. (UNHCR, The Rights of Noncitizens, (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2006), 5.)
[24] Blitz, 7.
[25] Van Waas, Nationality Matters, v.
[26] International Court of Justice, Nottebohm Case Liechtenstein v. Guatemala; Second Phase, (International Court of Justice ICJ, April 6, 1955) as quoted in Blitz, 21.
[27] A third avenue of nationality, jus domicilli (law of residence), outlines ways for naturalization, though this not primary to any state’s nationality laws.
[28] Van Waas, Nationality Matters, 34-32.
[29] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 23.
[30] Goris, Harrington and Koh. 5.
[31] Zahra Albarazi and Laura van Waas, “Towards the Abolition of gender discrimination in nationality laws,” Forced Migration Review 46 (2014): 49.
[32] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 24.
[33] Ibid, 26.
[34] Ibid, 27.
[35]Quantitative research on stateless populations is mired by reporting and research methodology challenges, including a lack of data collection, the failure or fear of stateless people to identify themselves, and conflicting interpretations of what qualifies a person as stateless. (Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion, 40-42.)
[36] The UNHCR gives a more conservative estimate of 10 million; however, this is based on data that has “reliable numbers” for only 75 countries, applies a problematic methodology, and does not include stateless refugees counted within other UN agencies, such as stateless Palestinians registered with the UNRWA. (Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion, 7)
[37]Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 35.
[38] The Asia and Pacific region holds both the largest number of stateless and the highest number of countries with a significant reported stateless population (more than 10,000 individuals).  Meanwhile, the Americas contain the lowest numbers of stateless individuals, which can be directly linked to the region’s general practice of jus soli. (Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion, 7-8)
[39] UNHCR, I Am Here, I Belong: The Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness. (UNHCR: Division of International Protection, November 2015), 1.
[40] Van Waas, Nationality Matters, 41.
[41] Ibid.
[42] The document conveys a certain tone of directness by foregoing any form of a preamble and immediately declaring in Article 1 that a state “shall grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.”
[43] Among the non-signees is the United States, which claims to be “fully committed to [the conventions’] objectives [but] not a party to these international legal instruments because they contain some specific obligations that are inconsistent with US law.” (Green and Pierce, 34.)
[44]Lindsey N. Kingston, “”A Forgotten Human Rights Crisis”: Statelessness and Issue (Non)Emergence,” Human Rights Review 14 (2013): 74.
[45] Ibid, 80-83.
[46] Researcher Lindsey Kingston suggests three explanations for statelessness’s (non)emergence as a global humanitarian issue.  Primary among these are obstacles caused by “issue heterogeneity” (meaning a failure to identify the root of the problem), general ignorance on the subject due to a dearth in knowledge and data, and finally the lack of gripping images (sometimes known as the “CNN Factor”).  Forgotten Human Rights Issue, 83.
[47] A review of the forum is available at http://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/statelessness/forum.htm.
[48] The initiative is built around a framework of ten strategic actions including the elimination of gender discrimination in nationality laws, ensuring universal birth registration, and improving global data on the stateless.
[49] UNHCR, Global Action Plan to End Statelessness 2014-2024, (UNHCR: Division of International Protection, November 2014), 4.
[50] http://ibelong.unhcr.org/
[51] http://www.institutesi.org/ (accessed February 2, 2015).

There Shall Be No Stateless Among You

Imagine that you have traveled to a foreign country.  All is well until you discover that your passport, driver’s license, and all other forms of official documentation are gone.  This is a nightmare enough, but then you are informed that your country’s embassy is no longer operating.  For the foreseeable future you will have nothing that shows who you are or that you are anyone.  How difficult would life suddenly become when you no longer have official or cannot prove that you have citizenship to any country?  How many areas of life would be complicated?  How many opportunities become impossible? How many rights denied?  What could you expect from this world if, in an official sense, you are not anyone?  Clearly you would be stuck.  The reality is we live in a world where official documentation matters; if you do not have official papers then you do not have something very important.

Unfortunately, this thought experiment is not a hypothetical situation but a daily experience for many millions of people around the world.  Nationality is not always something automatic, and many live without any recognized nationality or claim to citizenship.  No nation-state claims them as their own; they do not formally belong anywhere in our global political community.  These individuals are stateless, and their suffering is extensive.

For years I have witnessed the severity and complexity of the global crisis of statelessness.  I have seen it undermine the lives of my friends, my relatives and my brothers and sisters in faith.  It troubles me not only because the condition violates the international human rights, it violates God’s design for creation and the human experience.  Statelessness is a dilemma of many types (including legal, social, anthropological, and security), but it is foremost a theological dilemma.

The Bible shows in certain terms that God cares for the marginalized and vulnerable, and He demands justice, mercy and compassion from his people.  “There will be no poor among you,” declares the Lord (Deuteronomy 15:4).  The stateless suffer an acute form of injustice that hinders human belonging in our world today.  The voice of God agrees with the voice of those around the world calling for the right to nationality for all people: “There will be no stateless among you!”   I pray that this blog will be a resource to explore the crisis of statelessness, seek solutions to a completely solvable problem and, most importantly, honor the lives of the millions who daily forge lives of meaning in the face of injustice.