On 30 October this year, during an interview with Axios
, US President Donald Trump threatened to abolish birthright citizenship in America through an executive order. Globally, we see far-right leaders rising to power who are increasingly using ‘citizenship’ (and issues related to it) as a political weapon or electoral promise. Trump joining this abominable bandwagon has attracted the world’s (much needed) attention to the issue of statelessness. So, how exactly grave is the state of statelessness?
, states are either closing their borders, making immigration difficult or performing mass revocation of citizenship. ‘Statelessness’ in a strictly legal sense is defined as people who are not considered nationals by any state under the operation of its law
. Statelessness is not a new phenomenon, but it has certainly acquired new gravity with the arrival of far-right to power. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), today the total number of stateless people clocks at 12 million
. However, measuring the true scale of statelessness remains a challenge. The UNHCR estimate does not account for all stateless people and it also fails to include several de facto stateless people. De facto statelessness can be defined as people whose citizenship is practically void, either because of state persecution or because of introduction of certain arbitrary rules due to which they fail to prove their nationality. The situation of de facto stateless people can simply be put as ‘precarious citizenship’
. It creates a mirage of belongingness and leads to such a citizenship being in principle, bootless.
In 2014, the United Nations gave an ambitious declaration of ending statelessness by 2024
. However, there has been a rise in the number of stateless people -- from 10 million in 2014
to 12 million in 2018.
Ironically, this has happened in tandem with the rise of populist forces to power. Across the globe, conservative groups at power
are striking down on immigration and stripping several million people of their citizenships because of their ethno-lingual backgrounds. On the other hand, countries who have been in the recent past open to immigrants (for example, Germany
) are now facing a political scene where immigrants and non-natives are made political scapegoats for several developmental issues such as rising unemployment, slumping growth etc.
Subsequently, these polities ideologically lean towards overt securitisation, leading to people being arbitrarily ripped off their citizenships or end up with ineffective citizenships due to discriminatory practices employed by the state. In this sense, statelessness is a man-made problem, rather a “human malaise
Right to nationality ensures the right to exercise full civil, political, economic and social rights within the specified political territory. To simplify, a man’s cardinal right is the right to have rights. This golden right that ensures access to all other rights is the ‘right to citizenship.’
Some scholars disagree with this modern urgency created for the global recognition of right to citizenship as a fundamental right. They argue that the international human rights system effectively puts a check on countries and pushes them to be accountable. Further, as human rights are deemed to be basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world and as these rights “originate from the need to protect individuals against arbitrary use of state power
,” scholars argue for their expansive applicability to eclipse the need for a special focus on the right to citizenship. But this proposition fails the litmus test of real-time politics. Currently, in the diplomatic corridors, statelessness is being shrugged away as a national or regional concern obviating its international nature. Subsequently, nation-states are not actively considering ‘citizenship’ as a pivotal part of internationally-recognised obligations (for example, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) they are bound to perform.
Today countries, more than before, disregard the existence of international human rights for securitisation of their borders and in pursuit of stability. Due to this, it can be safely predicted that there has been a fundamental increase in the number of de facto stateless people. For instance, India’s judicially monitored and implemented National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam left close to four million citizens
de facto stateless. This is a classic case of arbitrary statelessness forced upon citizens for the purpose of securitisation. Gen. Bipin Rawat, the Chief of the Indian Army, defended the NRC and said opposition to this policy is guilty of undermining national security as “illegal migrants need to be deported”.
In fact, the initiation of such a registry is a direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Article 15, which states, ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality’. As a matter of fact, India was one of the first 48 signatories of UDHR and also went on to ratify it. This showcases how existence of a macro-system (of International Law) won’t necessarily be effective on ground and can also be completely incoherent in micro situations.
Another peculiar instance of a state’s security concern leading to a human rights disaster is Estonia. The Estonian example represents how stateless minorities are forced to live subhuman lives in terms of access to political freedoms, civil liberties and equal opportunity, due to prolonged political deadlock. Estonia prefers to consider its dissolution from the Soviet Union as a restoration of the former state
and rejected/continues to reject
any other terminology. Thus, restored Estonia
only guaranteed citizenship to those citizens who could prove their lineage with the pre-Soviet Estonia. A majority of Russian speakers, who could only trace back their lineage and domicile to the time of Soviet Union, thus became stateless migrants and were excluded from the formal state. Today, 1.3 million ethnic Russians
have a marginalised status, wherein many socio-political rights
are curtailed such as voting in national or EU elections, becoming a political party member, working in the public sector or running for public office.
After the Crimean crisis, conservative groups in Estonia have gained momentum to advocate continuity in status-quo of this citizenship policy. Their argument being, it is legitimate to be worried about divided loyalties in its largely Russian-speaking border areas and this could lay Estonia open to conflicts like those in eastern Ukraine and Crimea
. Russia’s ‘speculated and probable use of hybrid warfare’ by sowing seeds of societal rift
between Estonians and ethnic Russians is one of the many reasons why statelessness still continues to plague 1.3 million people in Estonia.
Like never before, the world community increasingly fancies the idea of a ‘walled world’
. The rise of the ‘other’, declining moral leadership and increasing xenophobia, has led to every country underlining securitisation as its foremost priority. Consequently, the ever-growing number of the stateless is rendering the failure of our international system of rights apparent. It is, thus, the need of the hour for statelessness to be placed prominently on the canvas of international diplomacy and on the list of international obligations of nation-states.
Moreover, in a global polity that is being fundamentally driven by economic interests, stateless people are a demography gone waste. The stateless might be easy to forget, but, as the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC) study
rightly mentions, “They are not a stain that will fade from being ignored, but rather they will, in all likelihood, grow.”
(Shweta Kushe is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai).
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