Unrecognized in the Shadows – the Plight of the Stateless

This blog post was written by Lee Caspi and Federica Sola, masters students of the LL.M in Human Rights at the University of Edinburgh. The blog reports on the panel eventUnrecognized in the Shadows: The Plight of the Stateless” on the topic of statelessness, hosted recently in Edinburgh, that received funding from the Global Justice and Global Development academies’ joint Innovative Initiative Fund.

On the 4th of April 2017 students, academics and professionals came together to discuss the issue of statelessness, a topic that does not receive much attention in academia or in public debate. The speakers aimed to raise awareness of the challenges encountered by stateless people. The event started with four short lectures on the topic, orchestrated by Professor Jo Shaw (University of Edinburgh).

The first speaker was Mr. Omar Alansari (Queens University, Belfast). Omar gave a very comprehensive overview of statelessness in international law, discussing the difficulties in achieving an accurate number of stateless people worldwide due to the fact that they are, by definition, not registered. He then discussed the causes of statelessness, such as discrimination; religion; gender; arbitrary denial of nationality based on political views; and gaps in nationality laws and geopolitical changes (as happened with the breakup of the former Soviet Union). He then focused on the two international conventions dealing with statelessness, underlining that both are not widely ratified. Next, he described the UNHCR mandate as relates to stateless people, which focuses on encouraging states to ratify the two conventions, and a campaign to end statelessness by 2024. Omar concluded his talk by describing the situation in Saudi Arabia, where there is an estimated total of over half a million stateless people.

Following this excellent outline of the legal framework on statelessness, Deirdre Brennen from the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion spoke about “Gender Discrimination and Statelessness”. There are 28 countries where women are discriminated against in their ability to confer their nationality to their children, and over 50 where they are discriminated against in their ability to change and confer their nationality through marriage. Following this introduction, Deirdre screened testimonies by a woman named Deepdi, with whom she worked in Nepal, Deepdi’s husband and two daughters. They told their personal stories, describing the everyday difficulties arising from the lack of nationality such as the inability to have their own bank accounts, open a business and access certain educational institutions. Deepdi’s two daughters also spoke about their experiences of feeling different to their friends due to their limited opportunities in some areas. In conclusion, Deirdre spoke about the mainstream aspects of feminism nowadays, but said that a fight for women’s nationality is missing from this global movement, and there is a need to raise more awareness of it.

Next came a presentation by Nina Murray from the European Network on Statelessness (ENS), who spoke about the arbitrary detention of stateless people. The ENS initiated a project around Europe to try to understand the scope of the problem of detention of stateless people, which was derived from 6 country reports from around Europe. The project focuses on removal procedures, the point at which stateless people are most at risk of detention. Despite the fact that detention of migrants is becoming more common, there is very poor data regarding detention of the stateless since it is not always recorded, making it more difficult to protect them. Nina then discussed two countries, Poland and the UK, where there is a route for stateless people to become recognized, but both present often insurmountable obstacles on the path to recognition. For example, in the UK, those who have a criminal record cannot be recognized as stateless. This creates what Nina describes as a cycle of detention-release-detention, making it near impossible for people ever to start a normal life. The presentation concluded with recommendations for the way forward, such as finding alternatives to detention and developing a better procedure for identifying the stateless.

Finally, Cynthia Orchard from AsylumAid spoke about Statelessness in the UK. Being stateless in the UK makes it very difficult to work, access higher education, creates a higher risk of detention, and many other problems as access to housing. A procedure for recognizing stateless people was successfully introduced by the UK government in 2013. To apply to stay in the UK, a stateless person must fill out a 38-page application in English and provide many documents that are impossible to access if you are stateless. The Home Office expects stateless people to contact the embassy of a country to which they have some connection in order to obtain proof that they are stateless. AsylumAid often accompanies them in this process in order to act as witnesses, because the testimonies of the applicants are frequently deemed not credible. If the application is successful, the applicant is granted leave to remain in the UK for 2.5 years, which can then be extended. If leave is refused, the applicant can make a new asylum/statelessness application, or request judicial or administrative review. Cynthia discussed her concerns regarding the process of recognizing stateless people in the UK, which is extremely slow, provides no legal aid (in England and Wales), and has a very low rate of granting stateless status (around 5%).

Following this excellent series of lectures, three students discussed issues of statelessness from their home contexts. The first speaker was Josef Budde who moved to Guam in 2010. Josef discussed Guam’s history and its current status as a US naval base, where the local community has limited statehood. They are, on the one hand, US citizens, but on the other cannot vote for the presidency and have no representation in the Senate. Next, Aija Butane described the situation in Latvia. When Latvia achieved independence, it established in its nationality laws that those who were citizens of Latvia before the Second World War and their descendants would be recognized as Latvian, and those who moved during the Communist era would not. This has rendered many ethnic Russians in Latvia stateless. Aija discussed the very high requirements of the naturalization process for ethnic Russians to become Latvian due, among other things, to the high language requirements. However, the situation is slowly improving and now affects mostly those of the older generation. Finally, Dania Abul Haj described the complex nationality situation in Palestine. She described her personal experiences as a Palestinian from East Jerusalem travelling with an Israeli travel document despite not having Israeli nationality, while having a Jordanian nationality which is cumbersome and impractical to use. She described her experiences when registering her nationality with the University of Edinburgh and the bureaucratic system’s lack of understanding of the situation she must deal with every day.

The event concluded with a short Q&A session, where students brought up issues such as climate refugees, the nationality of children born in the Islamic State, and the ratification rates of the two statelessness conventions.


This workshop was made possible through the generous support of the Global Development Academy and the Global Justice Academy. We would like to give a special thanks to Dr Kasey McCall-Smith for her support; to Professor Jo Shaw for chairing the conference and to all the guests who travelled from all over the UK to speak at the event.

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