Statelessness is Getting It’s Own Chapter in the Bible of Refugee Law.
The Question Is, What Took So Long?
In 1983, Professor Guy S. Goodwin-Gill at Oxford published the first edition of what would go on to be a canonical text in refugee law: “The Refugee in International Law.” This month, the 4th edition finally dropped and imagine my excitement to hear that it contains an entire chapter on statelessness. This is excitement was followed by the inevitable sadness that hits me when I realize how grateful I always am that statelessness, that neglected step-child of international law, receives any attention at all.
While statelessness was mentioned in previous editions of “The Refugee in International Law”, as is typical of the entire field of refugee studies, it is treated as a poor step-cousin and a side issue in most books. I was once personally refused admission from a working group on forced displacement because my topic, statelessness, “did not fit into the topics covered by the working group.”
Yet, it is well known that statelessness is both a cause and a consequence of displacement, as well as being a serious human rights violation that underpins many other violations. The original refugee convention was supposed to offer protection and solutions to both stateless people and refugees, treating the issues as intertwined and inseparable, yet statelessness ended up regulated to its own, separate and neglected international conventions, while the 1951 Refugee Convention mentioned statelessness only in the context of refugees. At the same time, the human rights framework also overlooked the problem of statelessness, contenting itself with a vague right to citizenship that has never been properly articulated. Today, statelessness is seen as a “legal and technical problem” instead of a massive human rights violation, tearing large parts of the world asunder.
As an expert on statelessness, I am often flabbergasted by the lack of attention and caring, even amongst human rights and refugee experts, for statelessness. Even UNHCR, the UN agency with the mandate to address statelessness often treats it like a side-issue to the main event, which is refugees and displacement. Even now, research on the intersection between statelessness and displacement is only beginning in many regions and countries. When I began my PhD on statelessness, I thought of it as an “emerging issue.” Ten years later, it is still emerging. In fact, it has been emerging since the early 20th century. Why is this?
It has taken me a long time to realize and accept that for many people, citizenship and all it entails (voting, running for office, expressing political opinions in public, demonstrating and protesting, accessing higher education, becoming a leader in one’s profession) are things that certain kinds of people are supposed to be doing, but not things that other kinds of people are supposed to be doing. When you dig deep, resistance to confronting statelessness stems from the same racism, classism and sexism that creates so many problems in this world. The classic, stateless refugee from the Cold War era is an educated, white, Eastern European man who is capable of being a citizen, if given the chance. He deserves and is prepared for citizenship. He would probably have been right at home among the cives of ancient Rome. And everyone else? Well, what is the world coming to when plebeians can vote?