No country for 15 million 'legal ghosts'
In Myanmar, the Rohingya people are denied citizenship because they don't belong to the official “national races."
August 20th, 2012
01:07 PM ET

No country for 15 million 'legal ghosts'

By Stewart M. Patrick and Isabella Bennett, CFR

Stewart M. Patrick is director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Isabella Bennett is program coordinator. This entry of The Internationalist originally appeared here. The views expressed are solely those of Stewart M. Patrick and Isabella Bennett.

Guor Marial, a cross-country All-American athlete at Iowa State, ran two marathons in Olympic qualifying times. But with no passport and no country — and no coach nor a sponsor — he watched the Summer Games’ opening ceremony from Flagstaff, Arizona.

After fleeing from a Sudanese refugee camp at the age of 8, Marial had eventually escaped to Egypt and then the United States, where he lives as a permanent U.S. resident but without citizenship.

The day before the competition began, the International Olympic Committee finally granted Marial permission to run as an independent athlete. Marial, who works at night and trains by day, finished 47th in London. No medal, but a rare triumph for the world’s stateless.

As many as 15 million people worldwide cannot claim a state as their own, because they lack legal citizenship or formal documentation of their status. They are, in effect, “legal ghosts,” lacking even the “right to have rights.” And unlike Marial, many are not even considered refugees — placing them in a precarious legal limbo. They may be deprived of education, employment, housing, public health and welfare benefits, the right to vote, and access to legal justice.

Many people are born stateless. Discriminatory laws in some nations deny certain ethnic groups citizenship. In Myanmar, for instance, the government maintains that the Rohingya people do not belong to the official “national races of Burma,” regardless of the fact that many of them trace their roots back centuries.

In another notable case, the government of Slovenia erased the names of 25,000 individuals from the national register because they had not met the three conditions for citizenship after its independence from Yugoslavia. Many of these “erased” people protested that they had never been informed of the policies.

Migrant workers or trafficked individuals may also lose citizenship status — and their children may be ineligible for citizenship of any nation. Geography can also exacerbate statelessness, as some rural populations simply live too far from state registration clinics.

Finally, as Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero notes, pervasive gender discrimination compounds statelessness.

In 26 countries, primarily in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, legislation can prevent women from acquiring, conferring or changing their nationality. These laws prevent women from passing citizenship to a foreign husband (who may lose his citizenship upon marrying her) and also prevent women from passing citizenship to a child. For example, the Swaziland constitution decrees that a child born after 2005 is only a citizen if his or her father is a citizen.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies a general right to nationality, it does not spell out the specific responsibilities of states to guarantee nationality. The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness seek to fill this gap. These treaties define “statelessness,” and state parties agree to grant basic rights, such as bestowing citizenship at birth and supplying travel documents. But with only 74 and 45 state parties respectively, these instruments have made little headway in solving the growing problem of individuals who have no place to call home. (See map here.)

The United States continues to resist both treaties, on the principled ground that U.S. law “has long recognized the right of Americans to renounce their nationality, even if doing so would lead to statelessness.” Notwithstanding this decision, the State Department treats statelessness as an important human right and humanitarian issue, and U.S. diplomats advocate vigorously against discriminatory citizenship laws in other countries.

The United States is also the largest financial contributor to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency mandated to address the plight of the world’s stateless. Supported by the international community, UNHCR has taken the lead in advocating for stateless people’s rights, encouraging accession to the relevant international conventions and providing policy advice and staff training to countries with large stateless populations. For instance, a 2003 UNHCR initiative supported a drive to register more than 190,000 “Estate Tamils” who were brought to Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century by the British.

The United States, through its engagement with regimes around the world that are falling short of their international obligations, can and should do more to battle the problem of statelessness. A good start has been the increased attention given to stateless populations in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

Taking a bilateral approach may be more realistic than seeking a comprehensive global solution, given one particularly inconvenient truth for Washington: that the largest proportion by far of the world’s stateless are members of the Palestinian diaspora, numbering perhaps 4 million people. Until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled, concerted global cooperation to fight statelessness will likely be stalled by its impact in that region.

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Topics: Demographics • Global • Human Rights • Immigration • Inequality

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. jfeldredge

    The law in the USA used to state that an American woman marrying a foreign man lost her American citizenship, but an American man marrying a foreign woman kept his American citizenship. The (incorrect) assumption was that the woman would automatically be granted citizenship by her husband's country. My grandmother married a Canadian man before World War I, and became stateless, although she did not realize this until she applied for a passport after World War II, and was told that she was not an American citizen. She had to go through naturalization proceedings to regain her American citizenship, even though she had been born in the USA. The law has since been changed.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Alex

      It also works that way for duel citizenship. President Obama was elegiible for British citizenship because his father was Kenyan which was at the time part of the British empire. I am two years younger than the president, my mother was from Scotland and a British subject but I could not get British citizenship because it was my mother who was British and not my father.

      August 21, 2012 at 12:42 am |
      • Greenspam

        Absolutely incorrect. UK doesn't grant automatic citizenship to citizens of her colonies, especially if they are non-white. Just talk to the 6M people in HK before the 1997 turnover to China.

        August 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Martin

      I am a British Citizen, and kept that citizenship when I gained my Canadian citizenship.

      What's funniest about the application is that one of my friends who vouched for me on my Canadian application then applied for his British citizenship, and I vouched for him on his British application

      August 21, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  2. Bill from GA

    Taking a bilateral approach may be more realistic than seeking a comprehensive global solution, given one particularly inconvenient truth for Washington: that the largest proportion by far of the world’s stateless are members of the Palestinian diaspora, numbering perhaps 4 million people. Until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled, concerted global cooperation to fight statelessness will likely be stalled by its impact in that region

    AND YET THE US IS SUPPORTING AN OCCUATION when 4 + Miliion people are left without a country outside of the west bank. Go figure

    August 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • max3333444555

      Why dont the Palestinians have a country? it couldnt be because of a failure to negotiate in good faith, right?

      August 21, 2012 at 11:15 am |
      • Dave Behrens

        Islam permits lying to non-Muslimsif it advances their faith. Never trust a Muslim.

        August 22, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  3. driranek

    We're all humans, right? All born on earth? Yet our rights exist or not depending on whether we have in our hands a specific piece of paper? Get real – this smacks of some narrow-minded little politician trying to create power for himself where none rightfully exists. People, all people have rights – a piece of paper does not.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Mandor

      People have what rights that their own society chooses to grant one another. And they have what rights they give themselves if they overthrow a tyrannical government and put a better form of government in place.

      Ideally, yes, certain rights *should* be universal. In the real world, certain rights are only earned and kept with the barrel of a gun. I wish it were not so. But wishing never made it so.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
      • deniz boro

        Living in one area of the world is a natural human choice. It does not necessarily mean you adobt to be the national of that country. Most countries have a kind of ceremony in which you vow to hold that country before any other countries. To fight for that country in any crises, etc. It is not just paying the taxes. It means you wish and are truely committed to be a national of that country. It is rather a personal and sentimental issue. Not an administrative one. It all depends on wheather or not you can take a vow on belonging to a country ....well truely.

        August 20, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • patiat

      That's all cute, warm, fuzzy and John Lennon-y, but it doesn't have much to do with the reality of the people described in the article, for whom statelessness is a very real thing, with consequences. Singing "Imagine" in unison won't help them.

      August 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  4. Carmine

    Hats off to Pakistan for taking care of over 3 million Afghanistanian refugees for the past 30 years + !!!!!! The world can learn from this generosity.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • f4xtrafn

      Right after they release that 11 yo kid that was arrested for buring some pages of a book about the life of a revered pedophile.

      August 21, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  5. Fire Fareed

    How can they keep the name and picture of a proven plagairist at the top of this section. It damages credibility of CNN, time and anything published within these media outlets. Plagairism is immoral, and any plagairist should be looked at as a disease in the circles of journalists and readers alike.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • deep blue

      Are you kidding me? The vast majority of news is plagiarized. Many news organizations, Huffington Post and to lesser extent the other major outlets, do very little exclusive reports. They steal from, and do not cite, the associated press or other original sources. In contrast, a full investigation by Time magazine reported that the plagiarism was an isolated incident, in many years of outstanding journalism. Obviously, if he had intentionally plagiarized, he would have done it more than once over his career.

      August 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • deep blue

      Go to CNN's main page. Click a random article. Confirm that it does not cite AP. Copy a paragraph, and google it. I have done this, and hundreds of articles came up. Now, is it possible that CNN was the first and everyone else plagiarized? Yes, but I doubt it. You will find the same at most major news networks. Now, is Zakaria a better journalist than that? Yes, he should be held to a higher standard, but only because he is the best analyst that they've got.

      August 20, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • CNN Fan

      What an Idiot you are. Shame on you !

      August 22, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  6. outawork

    Is Fareed still on double secret probation?

    August 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  7. Jack

    Shame on Buddhist Burmese/Myanmarese and Indian Hindus for massacring millions of these poor muslims. Hats off to the Talibans for warning the Indian and Burma/Myanmar them to back off. They did what no Islamist government had the guts to do.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  8. Mandor

    "The United States ... can and should do more ...".

    Can? Probably. Should? That's arguable. Very arguable. With an economy in the crapper and record long-term unemployment across the nation, I would prefer to see any excess funds from our tax base devoted to helping our own citizens for the time being.

    However, I fully support the right of every american who has extra funds, to donate whatever amount they feel their own household budget can sustain, to causes like these.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  9. deep blue

    Where do we even deport these people to if they enter the US illegally? How does ICE determine where to deport illegals?

    August 20, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  10. Wondering

    I wonder how much of this article is actual reporting and how much was "borrowed" from someone else?

    August 21, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  11. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

    Y'all wanted de-colonization and self-determination for everybody.And you made it happen. So guess what happened next? The de-colonized countries started to determine for themselves, which groups are part of themselves.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  12. just me

    People from other countries who come here to the US to work or study etc and start having children like rabbits. These children should absolutely NOT be granted American citizenship. Period. Some of them even plan to get pregnant right away before or after getting here just to get their children US passports. This is ridiculous and has to stop..

    August 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  13. The R.OT.P.

    "never trust a muslim", I Am not a a muslim or a jew, to be honest I've had jews steal from Me but never an arab, I'd rather eat with an arab than a stinking jew any day of the

    August 22, 2012 at 4:49 am |


    We are Hindus from India,
    And we like to put on the Bindiya,
    We are mostly Haris,
    But we like to put on the Saris,
    Sadly, we are nothing but Bhikaris,
    Sadly, we are nothing but Bhikaris,

    August 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  15. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:40 pm |

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