The Silent Humanitarian Crisis that Affects Millions

Amanda Landwehr
Staff Reporter

Children at a Rohingya refugee camp. Photo courtesy of Dar Yasin, AP Images.

Tonight, nearly 10 million people will go without basic fundamental rights—no residency, no national identity and no opportunity to relocate. Who are these people? Why do so many people remain unaware of this crisis?

In 2017, a report on the total population of concern worldwide was issued by The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The total population of concern consists of refugees, asylum seekers and more groups who have been forcibly displaced. These figures indicated that out of 71.4 million people who fell under the UNHCR population of concern, nearly three million individuals within the data were classified as being “stateless.”

The UNHCR is expressing evident concern for the millions of people who are rendered stateless worldwide, yet most Americans remain unaware of the crisis of large-scale displacement and the devastation of statelessness that affects populations worldwide.

Statelessness is defined by the “1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons” as a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law. As stated by the UNHCR, statelessness may occur for a multitude of reasons. Notable causes of statelessness include discrimination against certain ethnic groups, geographic division of a state and gender inequality. Regardless of the reason, statelessness is a massive crisis that is displacing millions worldwide.

The majority of stateless populations come from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma and Iraq. Most of these stateless individuals have been forcibly removed from their countries as a result of ethnic conflicts. An example of this is the Bangladesh Liberation War that took place in 1971.

At the end of this war, thousands of Biharis loyal to Pakistan were stranded. Many of these people still live in refugee camps as Pakistan refuses to accept these people as citizens. The country of Bangladesh also does not consider them citizens, therefore rendering thousands of Biharis stateless.

The crisis of statelessness is devastating millions of people. Multiple groups are attempting to tackle the crisis of large scale displacement, such as the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI). The ISI was established in 2014 as a means of continuing the existing work of the statelessness program, which operated through The Netherland’s Tilburg University from 2011 to 2014.

Graphic made by Zachary Wright.

Michiel Hoornick is a program officer for the ISI, and describes the group as an independent non-profit organization committed to an integrated, human rights-based response to the injustice of statelessness and exclusion.

According to Hoornick, statelessness is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis. The effects of statelessness are being felt worldwide, especially by children.

“In 25 countries around the world, women are not allowed to pass nationality to their children,” Hoornick said. “So if the father is a foreigner or passed away, the child will be rendered stateless.”

The exact number of people affected by statelessness is constantly fluctuating, and remains somewhat unknown. However, the UNHCR claimed that out of the predicted millions of stateless people worldwide, nearly one third are children. Large-scale displacement continues to devastate populations around the globe, but Hoornick claims that there are multiple actions that the average person can take to contribute to the end of statelessness.

“What people can do as a start is to get the word out, on what statelessness is,” said Hoornick. “We notice in our work that most people take citizenship for granted, be it American, or Dutch, or Chinese, and that we have build our systems around that.”

Mike Nicholson is a researcher at the Center for Migration Studies in New York City. Nicholson said many stateless people don’t have documentation, preventing them from leaving their countries. These people are mostly refugees from persecution or political conflict, and flee their countries of birth in order to seek out economic opportunity or join family members who live abroad.

“There’s a lot of variation across individual cases,” said Nicholson. “It’s important to note also that some stateless persons leave their countries of origin with their families as children and do not discover they are stateless until later in life.”

“Many Americans are unfamiliar with statelessness and are not aware that stateless persons reside in the United States,” said Nicholson. “Stateless persons who lack legal status in the United States cannot travel abroad or sometimes even elsewhere in the U.S. Many are barred from legal employment. They are also vulnerable to arrest and prolonged immigrant detention.”

As a solution, Nicholson and the Center for Migration Studies claim that countries should create certain guidelines for determining whether a person is stateless, and should work to give these stateless individuals legal residency and travel documents.

Organizations are taking action against statelessness in multiple ways. The ISI is currently working to publish a children’s book titled “The Girl Who Lost Her Country.” This book is based on the story of a real girl in Nepal, a country where women cannot transfer their nationality to their children. By bringing awareness to the crisis of large-scale displacement, the ISI hopes raise awareness and bring an end to statelessness.

The crisis of statelessness is a discussion that Americans need to be having, and many can help to achieve the goal of ending large-scale displacement by education, conversation, and taking action. As stated by Nicholson, “private citizens could help by raising awareness of statelessness and the challenges that stateless persons face.” Through these efforts, people can help to assist in ending statelessness by donating to organizations, spreading awareness and helping to advocate for the rights of stateless people.

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