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Statelessness and the UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign

We have explored the issue of nationality as a human right before, namely how it used to signify an allegiance to a ruler or territory but has morphed into a requirement needed to engage in basic human behaviour, like movement or cultural affiliation.

But however necessary nationality is in the modern world, there is neither a universal statute that compels countries to grant it, nor one that holds them accountable for not doing so. This results in a high number of stateless persons.

Reasons for statelessness vary. There are legal loopholes that result in refugees or other types of migrants becoming stateless by giving up their original nationality in the name of a new one, and receiving neither. In other cases, countries do not guarantee citizenship by birth, that when mixed with countries that do not grant nationality by parentage (if the child is born elsewhere) can also result in a stateless limbo.

But the most concerning reason for statelessness is regarding ethnic or religious affiliation.

Stateless individuals are subjected to lifetimes of exclusion and discrimination. At least 20 countries have nationality laws that operate on a discriminatory basis, rejecting citizenship rights to members of certain ethnic or religious groups, whether they were born in the country or not. These groups include the Roma in Macedonia or the Pemba of Kenya.

The latter came to Kenya in two waves: between 1935-1940 seeking employment opportunities, and again the late 1960’s fleeing war and persecution. Though some were given identity cards, most were revoked and some were deported during the repressive Kenyan regime in the 1980’s and 1990’s (UNHCR). They have remained predominantly stateless and subjected to poverty and marginalisation since then.

Many stateless individuals stand defeated, going to citizenship offices only to be turned around for not having the same documents that they are trying to apply for.

The UNHCR recently launched their #IBelong campaign, which aims to end statelessness by 2024, giving individuals a taste of something they’ve never had: a sense of belonging.

“Imagine being told you don’t belong because of the language you speak, the faith you follow, the customs you practice or the colour of your skin. This is the stark reality for many of the world’s stateless. Discrimination, which can be the root cause of their lack of nationality, also pervades their everyday lives – often with crippling effects. If we want to end statelessness, we must address this discrimination. We must insist on equal nationality rights for all.

- Filippo Grandi UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Author: Ana Hernandez

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