Statelessness and the Challenge of Not Belonging

If someone asked you what you take for granted in life, what would you say? Education, perhaps? Or healthcare? Nationality, the status of belonging to a particular nation, is unlikely to be on that list.

Having never spent more than 8 years in one country, I have always found wearing the label of British national strange and confusing; it never seemed to reflect my identity and experience. What I had failed to understand was that, in reality, the very fact that I have a nationality is a luxury not a burden. Nationality is something that shapes our lives more than we realise, and it opens up a world of freedoms to us. Our nationality significantly impacts our identity and our sense of belonging.

But the reality is that not everyone enjoys the privilege of having national citizenship. Approximately 12 million people[1] around the world are unable to obtain citizenship of any country for a variety of reasons, meaning that they are stateless.

Nationality matters. Without a nationality, stateless people are unable to access many of the services and statuses that we take for granted every day. In the eyes of the law, they do not exist. As a result, they have no access to a passport or identity documentation, and they are unable to legally obtain a driver’s license, open a bank account, take out a loan, or buy a house. They have no formal access to education, and so cannot get a degree or any recognised qualifications, and cannot be legally employed so do not have the financial security of stable employment. Services such as healthcare, pensions, social services and legal support are off limits. As well as not being able to obtain a birth certificate, they cannot even get a death certificate. They cannot legally marry, and starting a family is a hard decision because in many circumstances stateless parents are unable to acquire nationality for their children.

The causes of statelessness vary. It can be caused by clashing nationality laws, as some states grant nationality to those born on its territory, whereas others allow nationality to be passed on only through parents. Statelessness can also be caused by laws or practices that discriminate against people on the basis of their ethnicity or gender. For instance there are 27 countries around the world where women are unable to pass on their nationality to their child, so if the father is absent, or is himself stateless, the child will be stateless and the mother helpless to change this.

Discrimination against minority groups is a core cause of statelessness, as illustrated by the historic and ongoing marginalisation of the Rohingya. In 1962, dictator General Ne Win came into power and began a ‘Burmanization’ campaign with the slogan ‘Burma is for Burmans’ and labelling the Rohingya as ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’.[2] Since the military took over power, the Rohingya have been systematically discriminated against and persecuted, and have suffered deprivation of their political rights. The fact that over half a million of the population are currently displaced as a direct result of years of being seen as legally invisible by the state is no mistake.

Ultimately, the travesty of statelessness is not only that it deprives people of their rights, often to brutal effect, but it also questions their very right to exist as it attempts to sever their ties with the land they live in. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people knew that they belonged to God because of the land he set apart for them; it was a sign of identity and belonging. One example of God reassuring his people of their promised land comes in Deuteronomy, where God repeatedly speaks of their land as an inheritance and a blessing: “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). The Bible emphasises the importance of nationhood and belonging; it points us towards the wonderful transnational belonging that is made possible through Jesus. The gospel assures us that our ultimate citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but this does not undermine the importance of our citizenship on earth. In fact, it underlines it.

Statelessness can be hard to resolve when those in power are reluctant to grant nationality to individuals and groups that they do not view as deserving. This injustice and discrimination echoes attitudes that are rife in our world today that fail to reflect our identity as humans created equal in God’s image; each one of us deeply loved and held in grace. As Christians we live in the wonderful reassurance that our ultimate home and hope is in God’s new world. Revelation 21 gives us a glimpse of a ‘city,’ a tangible reality, where each and every one of us will belong:

24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.

This image of a city that closes its gates on no one, in which each person walks in light and splendour, gives us an image of mutual flourishing and true freedom that we long to see in our own world. The future vision of a New Jerusalem that we see in the Bible shows us that citizenship and belonging are important, and it gives hope to those who are currently stateless. It should also challenge us to be thankful for our own citizenship, and should lead us to advocate for the rights of the 12 million or so people who are currently living under the shadow of statelessness.

  2. How To Protect the Rights of the Stateless Rohingya People in Myanmar? Silvia di Gaetano, 10 February 2013, The Asian Resource Foundation

To find out more and/or sign UNHCR’s open letter to end statelessness visit this site:

Tess Hovil | 2nd year  @ Exeter

One Reply to “Statelessness and the Challenge of Not Belonging”

  1. This is brilliantly written Tess,you’ve addressed issues close to home,thankyou.

Comments are closed.