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March 30, 2015

Statelessness is a Human Rights Violation

By Erica Qualliotine

An estimated 10 million people in the world are stateless. One third are children. When people do not legally exist, they are far more susceptible to trafficking, forced conscription, violence, institutionalized discrimination, and a range other human rights abuses, from denial of health care to restrictions on freedom of movement. 

Many countries, including Lebanon and Syria, institutionalize gender discrimination by preventing transmittance of maternal citizenship. If the father of a newborn is not present at birth, that child does not receive a birth certificate and is not recognized by the state. Despite the mother’s legal status in her country of residence, her newborn is now stateless.

This problem is exacerbated in war-torn and conflict-ridden regions because many fathers have died or gone to war. Women head approximately a quarter of all Syrian refugee families. Women oppressed by discriminatory laws and widespread violence are vulnerable to sexual assaults and rape, which can also mean more stateless newborns. War also destroys documents, and many lose their identities when they cannot  replicate those documents.

Earlier this week Congress held a hearing on the human rights of stateless people, co-chaired by Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Joe Pitts (R-PA). The United States must “let other countries know that making people stateless, even if it’s done through laws or courts, is unacceptable,” said Julia Reddy from the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Especially where denial of citizenship affects a specific ethnic group, no legal principle or procedure can disguise that this is discrimination of the most devastating kind.”

U.S. allies, including Bahrain and Kuwait, are stripping political dissidents of their citizenship. “At this time, when the U.S. has taken an unprecedented interest in preventing and eradicating statelessness, it should be pressing Gulf governments to promote and protect the right to nationality, and to refrain in all cases from withdrawing citizenship because of peaceful dissident activities,” urged Sarnata Reynolds from Refugees International.

Statelessness is a fixable problem. In 2007, Brazil reformed its constitution with simple legislative actions, transforming 200,000 stateless people into citizens. Twelve more countries have recently changed their laws with the intention of eradicating their stateless populations.

The United States should be a leader in the fight to eradicate statelessness and press our allies to remove gender discrimination from nationality laws. In the midst of other global security threats, statelessness might seem like a low priority. But the invisibility of the problem can disguise its severity. Statelessness breeds more terror and trauma that in turn contribute to instability. Eradicating statelessness should be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.