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Recognizing Statelessness

Posted: 09/08/11 04:18 PM ET

The role of government in our lives is now the subject of pitched debate in Washington and throughout the country. But no matter your view on this contentious issue, nobody questions the profound responsibility of public institutions, here and abroad, to safeguard basic rights against discrimination, to equal justice and to political participation.

Sadly, those rights are denied to some 12 million people around the world who have been denied citizenship -- rendered stateless -- often by discriminatory national policies that exclude minorities even when they have lived in a country for decades or centuries and have well-established ties to both the land and culture of their places of residence.

From the Roma in Europe, to Dominicans of Haitian descent, to Bidoon in Kuwait and other countries, stateless communities suffer from marginalization and neglect. Most lack identity documents and cannot register a marriage, death, or birth of a child. Without documentation, many stateless people cannot open a bank account, own property, find legal employment, access public health services or enroll in school. And because they have nowhere else to go, they -- and their children, and their children's children -- live in a state of permanent uncertainty.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and it is a fitting time to consider the current dimensions of this terrible problem, which first gained international attention when the Nazis systematically denationalized German Jews. In its own effort to focus attention on the issue in this anniversary year, the United Nations hosted a photo exhibit on statelessness at its headquarters in New York this summer, which graphically depicted the dimensions of the problem and offered powerful contemporary stories of stateless people in Nepal, Kenya, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

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A young Muslim girl (Rohingya) picks up her identity document provided with UNHCR assistance in Burma's N. Rakhine State. (Photo courtesy of UNCHR)

Among the most egregious stories are those of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Burma's Northern Rakhine State who have lived in Burma for centuries, but were excluded from the country's 1982 citizenship law and continue to suffer persecution, including forced labor, confiscation of property, rape, and other forms of violence. While approximately 750,000 Rohingya remain in Burma, an estimated three million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region. Although some have been recognized as refugees, many others lack documentation and are at risk of arbitrary arrest and detention, deportation back to Burma, human trafficking, and other abuses. The Obama Administration is working with other donor governments, international and non-governmental organizations, and affected countries in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingya and identify durable, humane, and comprehensive solutions for their plight.

Globally, the U.S. government is concerned about statelessness as a human rights and humanitarian issue that impacts prospects for democratization, economic development, and regional stability. U.S. diplomats around the world are working to persuade other governments to amend nationality laws that discriminate against women and minorities and cause statelessness, provide documentation to stateless persons, protect them from abuse, and ensure they have access to basic services. And we are the single largest donor to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency mandated to protect stateless people, contributing over $700 million last year.

Happily, the laws of the United States do not contribute to the problem of statelessness; we grant citizenship through birth in the United States, birth abroad to a U.S. parent if statutory requirements are met, and through naturalization. To be sure, certain provisions of the 1961 Convention would make it difficult for the United States to move toward ratification -- for example, the Convention limits voluntary renunciation of nationality in ways that would conflict with the right to voluntary expatriation that is recognized under U.S. law. Nonetheless, we support the objectives and principles of the 1961 Convention as well as the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and we believe other governments should consider accession and implementation as a means to minimize statelessness.

Preventing and reducing statelessness requires first that governments, civil society groups, and international and regional organizations recognize the problem, its causes, and the suffering and indignities it inflicts on millions of people around the world. But recognition is not enough -- governments around the world must be pressed to take strong action to address this eminently solvable problem and ensure a brighter future for millions of disenfranchised and vulnerable people.

Eric P. Schwartz is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.