Belonging. The subject conjures up a realm of emotions. In today’s world, where increasing numbers of people are on the move, whether voluntarily or forced, it captures the nostalgia one feels for a home left behind or the yearning one has for acceptance in a new community. It can produce feelings of joy or loss even from a distance, as when one follows political, sporting, or family events from afar. It encompasses sentiments of anguish, fear, and resentment when those who wish to belong are rejected or when those within a group feel threatened by those from without. For all the talk today of an interconnected, globalizing world where borders are “not just permeable, but . . . shot through with large holes,” most of us still expect our national borders—the borders of the state where we belong—to be impenetrable, except through the preapproved legal channels.
With roots in Middle English, the term “belonging” means to be appropriately assigned to something or, in current parlance, to be rightly placed. If we think about how the world is currently carved up into states, and how states automatically assign formal belonging to individuals through the authorized channels of birth on the soil (jus soli) or descent (jus sanguinis), the vast majority of people on the planet are “rightly placed” from a legal and a statist perspective. We belong somewhere and are officially recognized as having a particular “national” home through citizenship. There are, however, an estimated 10 million people worldwide who either have never been “assigned” a particular citizenship at birth or have had their formal belonging stripped from them at some point in their life. They are the world’s stateless: those who officially belong nowhere.
This essay explores statelessness through the prism of belonging, asking whether the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) reframing of statelessness as an issue of belonging can be successful in eradicating statelessness globally. To answer this question, this essay introduces UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign, highlighting the novelty and transformative potential of the campaign’s use of “belonging” to address statelessness. The essay then provides an overview of the campaign’s core policy and strategic document, the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness: 2014-2024 (GAP), situating it within its institutional context.
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