A stateless person, a refugee and an irregular migrant walk into a bar…

Amal de Chickera, Senior Consultant on Statelessness, The Equal Rights Trust
/ 7 mins read

She gets a beer and waits for the world cup game to begin.

One person, many identities. We all are and have been identified in numerous ways – nationality, region, city, ethnicity, skin colour, belief, gender, sexuality, job, school, university, sporting interest, hobby, friends, social circle, sub-culture, family - you name it, there is an identity and/or an identifier attached.  Identity is as manifold as it is fluid, as it can be temporal and contradictory. We are all able to, and invariably do, thrive on this multiplicity. How boring, how impossible life would be if we were just one thing to all people at all times.

Shift context – from life in general, to protection and ultimately eradication in the context of statelessness – and the multiplicity of identities has proven a challenge. Statistics on statelessness, the way they are recorded now, merely capture those whose only protection-based identity is statelessness under the UNHCR protection mandate. A stateless refugee is not also recorded as stateless, but only as a refugee. Most stateless Palestinians or Sahrawis do not feature as they come under the mandates of UNRWA and MINURSO respectively. Our stateless refugee who is treated as an irregular migrant may enjoy the football, but will not be reflected in the statelessness statistics.

According to existing statistics (estimates may be a more appropriate term) there are at least ten million stateless persons in the world today. But this population of more than 10 million relates to those who are only stateless (and are not also refugees or protected by another UN agency). The same statement (there are at least 10 million stateless people in the world today) would be technically correct even if we were speaking of all stateless persons, but so would the absurd “there are at least two stateless people in the world today”.

Do we need to do better in how we statistically represent the worlds stateless? Is it important that we try to fully understand and reflect the scope of statelessness, and its multi-faceted nature in the world today? I believe that failing to do so is doing a disservice to the issue and to the millions of people affected by it. I say this, fully aware of the challenges and difficulties of counting the stateless, many of whom, by definition are almost uncountable. I believe though, that this is a separate challenge that applies equally, regardless of whether our target is those who are only stateless or those who are stateless+.

There are two interconnected objectives at hand here. Firstly, it is important to record statistics in a manner which gives us a clearer understanding of the total number of stateless persons. Secondly, it is equally important to collect and record statistics in a manner which recognises the multiplicity of identities and consequent protection needs that stateless persons are likely to have. Both must be done, for to do one without the other, is to misrepresent the complexity of the issue.

Below, is my attempt to give reasons as to why this is important. My reasons address both of the interconnected objectives mentioned in the above paragraph (further evidence that they are interconnected!):

  1. Purely from a scientific, academic perspective, there is value to the pursuit of knowledge and striving to understand the full extent of statelessness in the world today. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is an important aspiration – particularly because knowledge is rarely ever purely for knowledge’s sake. Even if we don’t know why today, tomorrow, once we have obtained the data, we may find it has a most practical use. Knowing how many stateless people are in the world, how many of them are also refugees, how many do not benefit from protection, how many come under the UNHCR protection mandate and how many come under the mandates of other UN agencies, is crucial from an academic perspective, and would be the basis for a whole range of interesting and important research and analysis activities.
  2. There is also a strong advocacy reason for this. Historically, UNHCR’s refugee mandate has always been front and centre to everything the agency has done, whereas its statelessness mandate has been peripheral. UNHCR’s prioritisation of refugees at the expense of statelessness has been largely mirrored by its NGO counterparts. While the UNHCR has been visibly addressing this disparity over the past decade or so, NGOs have perhaps been slower to respond. The best entry point to ease organisations out of their refugee-centric comfort zones and into the statelessness issue as well, would be to demonstrate that there is a significant overlap between the two populations. That Kuwaiti Bidoon refugees are stateless, and that an understanding of statelessness and the specific protection needs of the stateless, would enable them to do a better job in the refugee field. Statistics will play an important role in convincing organisations that they need to focus on statelessness as well.
  3. Connected to the above, is the fact that many refugees are either already stateless, or are vulnerable to statelessness. The children of refugees, born in camps are particularly at risk. A failure to appreciate the nexus between forced migration and statelessness can result in an avoidable increase in statelessness. Refugee actors who know more about statelessness will be more aware of the risk of statelessness, and best placed to take preventative steps. Statistics will make this nexus more evident.
  4. There is another protection gap that can potentially be plugged. Many stateless persons who should be recognised as refugees are not, either due to being in countries that do not protect refugees, or because their asylum claims have been wrongly rejected. An example would be the hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya in Saudi Arabia. They should be counted as both refugees and as stateless persons. Instead, they are counted as neither. The reason they do not make the refugee statistics is because they are not officially recognised as refugees by the state. The reason they do not make the statelessness statistics is because it is taken for granted that all Rohingya who have fled persecution in Myanmar would be refugees and therefore need not be counted as stateless. The aversion to double-counting has led to a gaping statistical hole.
  5. The argument against including within statelessness statistics, stateless refugees and stateless persons who come under the mandates of other UN agencies is very much a protection-based one. A stateless refugee is better protected by the Refugee Convention and therefore it doesn’t help to highlight their statelessness. Similarly, a stateless Palestinian who comes under the UNRWA mandate is not UNHCR’s concern. UNHCR’s statelessness mandate is about protection, but it is also about identification, reduction and prevention. Thus it is not merely the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons that applies [Article 2(i) of the Convention excludes from its application, those receiving protection or assistance from other UN agencies], but also the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The 1961 Convention contains no such exclusion clause – it applies to all contexts of statelessness and potential statelessness, be it persons in their own country, migrants, refugees or those protected by another UN agency.
  6. Connected to the above point, as UNHCR and its civil society partners embark on an ambitious ten year campaign to end all statelessness, it is important that all statelessness is targeted by the campaign. A starting point would be rethinking how statistics and estimates are collated, so as to give the full picture of statelessness.
  7. There is a deeper, more fundamental point. Negative stereotypes and pursuant discrimination and even persecution are often based on over-simplification. The more effectively a human being or group can be stripped down to one defining characteristic, the easier to dehumanise, vilify, hate. ‘Black’, ‘woman’, ‘Jew’, ‘Dalit’, ‘gay’, ‘gypsy’. These are all terms that have been used to reduce people to one single irrational identifier that has been the basis for oppression and exclusion. A main weapon against such narrow fundamentalism, is to demonstrate the multiplicity of identity. The stateless are not only stateless - each stateless person is an individual with his or her own story and multiple identities. I believe that statistics also have a role to play here. The oversimplification of statistical data, can contribute to generalising and stereotyping the identity of the group, to the exclusion of those who no longer fit the narrow view, and the detriment of those who do. Acknowledging that people can tick many statistical boxes, enhances their humanity and also the recognition of the complexity of the protection challenge we face.

As the campaign to end statelessness kicks off, as we search for more partners and try to find ways in which we can make the statelessness issue resonate with them, let us take a step back, think about who we really mean when we say the word ‘stateless’, and how we can include all of them in our ambitious plans to end statelessness.

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