How well do we really understand statelessness?

Tendayi Bloom (Lecturer in Politics, The Open University), Phillip Cole (Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, The University of the West of England, Bristol), Katherine Tonkiss (Lecturer in Sociology and Policy, Aston University)
/ 4 mins read

A new book on statelessness brings together scholars of statelessness, moral, political and legal theorists, activists, advocates, artists, and others, from across global regions, to dig deeper into the implications of statelessness for the way we understand the world and the positions of people within it.

What sort of challenge is statelessness?

There is more or less an international consensus that statelessness is a pressing challenge and one which has to be prioritised on the international agenda. Yet there is disagreement not only on how to address it, but what kind of challenge it is and who it is a challenge for.

As can be seen from the developed cases in the book, lacking citizenship is deeply problematic for vulnerable people in a world built on the assumption of citizenship.

However, some authors in this book argue that there is nothing inherently problematic about lacking citizenship if human rights were recognized for all people regardless of status, and were administered by states to all people within their territory. For example, some very rich people exist in a more-or-less stateless way, traversing borders and taking up residence wherever they please without obstacle.

Statelessness and rights

One way to address the problems associated with statelessness is to ensure everyone has a citizenship, but our book finds that the reality is complex.

For example, the book introduces individuals who are members of colonised groups who are contesting the main citizenship available to them.

On the other hand, we also encounter individuals, for example those identified as having Haitian heritage in the Dominican Republic, who already experience a lack of rights as citizens. When such individuals’ citizenship is removed, the resulting statelessness can be seen as both a symptom of the existing context of discrimination and rightlessness, and a cause of further exclusion from rights — including even deportation.

In trying to understand the connection that citizenship has to rights, and to exclusion from rights, we explore how citizenship functions (or fails to function) in spaces that are ungoverned, and what this means for stateless persons, states and citizens.

For example, in Kenya, it is found that in a context where there are stateless persons and ungoverned spaces, statelessness takes on different meanings, including for those who are formal citizens.

The book also examines the conflation of citizenship with other forms of membership such as nationality, and how this can tie political rights to ethnic and other memberships.

Radical responses

Some of the book’s contributors argue that the real solution is to break free of the assumption that there is a binary relationship between citizenship and (hyphenated) non-citizenship.

If citizenship is locked into a nation-state system that systematically produces statelessness, then it becomes necessary to look beyond the binary both theoretically and practically.

One response, for example, could be to conclude that, rather than everyone needing a citizenship, statelessness should become the norm.

Radical imagination becomes more crucial at times of great urgency, because it enables us to consider alternative possibilities, and so to ask why the current order persists when there are better possibilities open to us. As Hannah Arendt has argued forcefully, in times of political crisis what is required is precisely the use of the imagination.

Some may consider radical approaches not to be rooted in reality. But throughout the book, it is found that the systems of citizenship and exclusion that are actually practiced by states are, in an important sense, not part of the real world, and are not working for many people really living today.

The systems of citizenship are themselves constructs. Current political practices of membership are contingent, perhaps even arbitrary, and are mostly recent developments. This challenges the assumption that they should constitute the limits of our thinking about statelessness or the meanings of membership.

Moreover, when political leaders are willing to re-write the rules of membership to suit their own agendas, there is even less reason to adhere to such versions of ‘reality’.

An invitation to look for new possibilities

And so what is explored in this book are possibilities, using a variety of resources, including both images and words. Overall, the book finds that statelessness, like citizenship, is diverse and experienced in different ways.

This collection is intended to be a starting point rather than an endpoint for a deeper theoretical understanding of stateless. It is an invitation.

Finally, perhaps this re-examination of statelessness and its implications can also help us to revisit, as we introduced at the head of this piece, what is really meant by ‘statelessness’ today.


If you want to obtain your own copy of Understanding Statelessness, published in June 2017, it is currently available for order here. Readers of ENS can obtain a 20% discount by using the code FLR40. If you want to order a review copy of the book, this can be done here. Join us to celebrate the launch of Understanding Statelessness, with short and informal presentations from some of its contributors followed by an opportunity for discussion about statelessness. The London launch will be held on Wednesday 9th August 2017 5:30pm-6:30pm in the upstairs room of The Marquis of Cornwallis pub, 31 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AP.