Stateless people: When you become invisible for the world

Written by Alejandra Mateo.

Close your eyes and imagine for a few minutes that you were not allowed to access public healthcare, get a job, create a bank account or even get married to the person you love because, in the eyes of the law, you don’t belong to any country. Your nation is not recognised as a real estate by the country you live in, thus you remain in a legal limbo without having the most basic rights. You are also very likely to suffer from discrimination or even persecution for speaking your native language in public or for showing any kind of cultural expression from your nation. According to data provided by UNHCR, there are more than 10 million stateless people in the world, which means that, in terms of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, no state recognises them as nationals by their country’s legislation.

Before analyzing this concept and its legal implications, let’s mention first  the difference between nation and state, as it is key towards understanding statelessness: While a state is a separate political entity with definite geographic boundaries, a nation involves a large collection of people who are united by a common heritage, history, culture, nationality, or language. The four fundamental components of a state are its land, people, administration, and sovereignty. Geographical factors define a state’s boundaries. It is independent of all other states and has a unique system of government. Once a group of people take control of formal committees of government, such as laws, unchanging geographical boundaries, and independence, this group of people is considered to be a state (political independence). Therefore, we can assert that stateless people – those who are not part of any recognized country- have a nation because they share the same cultural roots, language and sense of belonging to a community. However they don’t have a state of their own where they are national citizens. Even though their state is not recognised by the country where they live, it doesn’t mean their nations can not be recognised as states by other countries themselves (external recognition). Nonetheless, the UE as a political community doesn’t give european citizenship to an individual who is not nationalized in another european country. This way, even if other states recognize the citizenship of stateless people, the European Union only will consider them as european citizens if they are already part of a state, not only a nation. 

Stateless people are very exposed to violence,  many of them become forced to migrate to European countries or regions seeking  safety and better opportunities. For them, the only way to migrate is to leave their country of origin irregularly by using complicated (and often very dangerous) routes to cross the borders and avoid migratory controls since they don’t have the right to own legal identity documents or even freedom of movement. Moreover, because of this inability to travel legally, many fall into the hands of human smuggling networks, which  increases their already high vulnerability. Nowadays, the countries with the highest number of stateless people are Côte d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Latvia  and Syria. In the past we can find similar cases with the former Yugoslavia, West Timor, Irak and also in African countries such as Angola and Mozambique.

You might now be wondering, what leads  certain people to not being able to enjoy a status of their own? 

The main causes can be found in discriminatory laws, which marginalize people who have their own cultural heritage, the existence of voids in nationality laws and also changes of government. Spanish lawyer and politician scientist Laura Cueto claims that, in most situations, “statelessness happens in countries that aren’t fully democratic or in dictatorships, which carries out  subsequent underdevelopment of their law in civil liberties and rights”. In this type of regime, it is frequent that  stateless people run away from their countries of origin  as a result of persistent discrimination in terms of their religion or ethnicity as their communities are often persecuted by authorities.

No one can live a normal life without being considered a citizen, the most simple daily routines such as bringing your kids to school or going to shop become almost impossible to accomplish.. Fortunately, the EU has different mechanisms that give protection to people who are stuck in this vulnerable situation: The  1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is the cornerstone of the international protection regime for stateless people as it establishes some basic rules of rights of stateless people such as employment, shelter and education as well as the right of having an ID, travel documents and administrative support. Furthermore, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness sets out several obligations in order to reduce and prevent statelessness due to the loss of nationality and other causes. Moreover, there are other international law instruments containing provisions relating to stateless persons such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and he Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Nonetheless, despite the multiple legal instruments that could be used by  European authorities in order to improve stateless people’s situation, the European Union doesn’t put enough pressure on  countries that prevent part of their population from becoming nationals. As a consequence of this permanent inaction, stateless people remain completely invisible for the countries they live in, but also for the entire world.

The situation of Palestinians

Palestinians struggle with the situation of not being recognized as part of a state inside Israel while this country continues to progressively take over Palestinian territory and resources with US support. However, both UNESCO and the United Nations General Assembly, as well as some states (including European states) consider Palestine as a state. The lack of sovereignty of the Palestinian state inside Israel, which is an essential element to get the right to self-determination, makes the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank stateless under international law. In this sense, we could say that the recognition of Palestine is external but not internal: According to Israeli law, Palestinians are illegally living in their state so they risk being arrested and brought to prison for being illegal, they are not allowed to work due to their irregular situation and can not access social services, they can not drive or own their identity documents. Also, the Israeli legislation doesn’t allow Palestinians to enter the country (this permission is only given to Israeli citizens) so if they leave it they can never come back. Nowadays, almost 2⁄3 of Palestinians are in a situation of prolonged exile and their fundamental rights are not being respected.

The actual solution to the statelessness of Palestinians is far from being found as the conflict has been prolonged for decades and the efforts made by the international community for the sake of protecting Palestinians from Israeli attacks happen to be very deficient. Some people argue that an independent and fully sovereign Palestinian state along the 1967 borders would be the logical solution for this conflict, as it would allow Palestinians to fulfill their right to self-determination and cultivate a sense of national identity. Still, other people believe that Israel must give up its occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem in the aim of returning the territories that they took from Palestinians a long time ago. If that ever occurred, Palestinians could create their own state and they’d be able to establish their residence there:This pursued goal would stop Palestinians from being stateless and lacking their civil rights.

The situation of Sahrawis

In the Western Sahara, whose population is considered stateless by the European Community, the geographical division of the Sahrawi people – unlike what happens in Palestine-  is a determinant point in this issue as it appears to have a very negative impact on their resistance capacity when fighting for their own state. This separation usually lowers  their ability to respond to the Moroccan occupation in their land: Some Sahrawis live in the occupied territories, others are in the diaspora and many others live in refugee camps in Algeria. Around 180.000 people now reside in these camps and the Polisario Front has established the self-proclaimed government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is recognised by more than 80 countries.

The factors at play that cause the statelessness of the Sahrawi population are rooted in Spain’s decolonisation of the territory in 1976, a key date when it comes to this conflict. That year, Spain lost this colony after the Green March that Morocco led against the area and following the Madrid Tripartite Agreement it signed to divide the Spanish province of the Sahara between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. During that March – there was an invasion and occupation of the territory- 3000 Moroccan civilians came to the Sahara province with the approval of Morocco. Even though Spain promised to celebrate an independence referendum in the Sahara territory, which is also the historical solution proposed by the international community – and most specially the United Nations- this consult  never took place and the territory was given to Morocco and Mauritania through the Madrid Agreements. Now, as a result of this situation, stateless people in the Sahara can’t even go to school, get a job and access to public healthcare as well as many other human rights such as speaking their own language in Morocco.

Emma Lancha is a sociologist and activist based in Cordoba, Spain, who has worked as a volunteer in the Sahara desert with local communities to provide humanitarian aid. She argues that “Spain does not only own a historical debt to the Sahara, but also a legal debt as it continues to administer the territory before the UN while nobody recognises Morocco’s occupation”. The Spanish government, which at the moment when Sahara was under Spanish control was a military dictatorship, didn’t defend Western Sahara people after  decolonization. She adjoins that “there was no effort at all aimed at protecting the rights of Sahrawi population and to preserve their freedom as a nation”. 

Nowadays the European Community doesn’t really put effort in improving their legal situation because, as stated by Lancha “there are huge economic and commercial interests in exploiting the resources from Western Sahara, which means Spain will always support Morocco”: This good relationship with Morocco is evidenced by the fisheries agreements as Morocco is the leading exporter of fish to Spain with more than 100,000 tonnes per year. In addition, Western Sahara has huge phosphorus deposits and the long-running conflict has also led to large arms sales and purchases. The sociologist additionally underlines the role displayed by France for being the biggest ally of France: “France is in the UN Security Council and as an ally of Morocco it blocks everything that is tried to be done in Western Sahara while Algeria supports Western Sahara”. This way, not only Spain but also France cooperates with Morocco so that France can operate in the territory of the Sahara and seize resources that are highly coveted at the time, such as oil, highly coveted minerals, etc.