A Conversation on Statelessness with Kristy Belton

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Haiti/Dominican Republic border. CREDIT: Alex Proimos/CC

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our Ethics & International Affairs author interview series sponsored by the Carnegie Council. My name is John Krzyzaniak, and I am assistant editor here at the journal.

My guest today is Kristy Belton, who is currently director of professional development at the International Studies Association. Her research focuses on citizenship, statelessness, and migration, and she recently contributed two essays to the journal on statelessness, the first appearing in Winter 2016 and the second appearing in Spring 2017.

Welcome to the program, Kristy. Thanks for joining us.

KRISTY BELTON: Thank you for having me.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: First of all, I just want to say I really enjoyed reading both of your essays, and I learned so much from them. For our listeners who haven’t yet had the chance to read them, can you tell us what is statelessness, and why does it exist?

KRISTY BELTON: I’m not going to be able to give you a straightforward answer. From the perspective of what I wrote in the two essays, we can say that a stateless person is somebody who is not a citizen of any state. States have their nationality laws, but they are not caught up in this web of a state’s nationality laws.

There are other definitions of statelessness that exist out there that we could say actually cause some problems for examining the statelessness which I do in my own research. For instance, sometimes you will hear about groups that are referred to as terrorists that engage in insurgent activities outside of state authorization; they can be called stateless. Other times, we know of groups, such as the Kurds or the Palestinians, who are wanting and often fighting for a state of their own but who are not necessarily stateless. So they may, for instance, be citizens of Lebanon or Jordan or some other state, but they are oftentimes referred to as stateless.

For the purposes of the human rights research that I do and for these essays, though, I focus on statelessness as people who are not citizens of any state. They literally have no citizenship from anywhere.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Based on that definition, it seems like it would be very hard to collect data about stateless people. But I’m wondering if you can give us some sort of basic details or statistics about statelessness, like how many people are stateless worldwide, where are they most concentrated geographically, and is statelessness generally declining or is it on the rise?

KRISTY BELTON: We really don’t know the extent of statelessness. There are a variety of reasons for this. But if we were to take, for instance, officially recognized statelessness statistics, which are found really within the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) database—it’s a statistical online population database—it looks like there are less than 4 million stateless people worldwide. But we know, based on evidence that has been collected over the past decade, that statelessness exists globally and that there are at least 10 million people who are stateless around the world. UNHCR will admit that even though its official statistics are less than 4 million stateless people globally, it says there are 10 million. Other reports exist that estimate it to be anywhere from 12 to 15 million, for instance.

In terms of where these individuals who hold no citizenship live, they live typically in the countries where they were born. This can be anywhere in the world. There are stateless people, for instance, in developed countries, whether it be Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and so forth. There are stateless people who exist in what we call developing countries in Africa or Latin America.

If we think in terms of what we know officially, because there are many millions who are likely flying under the radar because of poor data collection or because governments refuse to recognize that stateless people exist on their territories, we know for sure that the largest concentrations right now are within South and Southeast Asia.

So Myanmar, which has a huge problem, even in relation to refugee-hood with the Rohingya Muslim minority right now—we’ve been following this in the news—they have been denied Burmese or Myanmarese citizenship, even though they were born in the country. There are well over a million stateless individuals there. Thailand has issues as well.

The Middle East also has issues, longstanding in many cases, of individuals who have been denied citizenship. People who are nomadic in the region, for instance, who aren’t necessarily slotted into a given state’s boundaries at birth because they cross borders and have done so historically, find themselves in this very precarious situation of not knowing where they belong, or having a state tell them that they don’t belong to it even if the people themselves feel as if they should belong.

Eastern Europe still has a fairly strong contingency of stateless persons in Estonia and Latvia.

You could quite literally, I would presume, go through most of the states on the globe and find that statelessness exists, even if it is not officially recognized or if other terms are used to describe the stateless.

It is almost to take a political stance, John, at times to use the term “stateless” to refer to groups of people. It is such a sensitive issue in terms of sovereignty that most states refuse to acknowledge the presence of stateless people within their borders. This, of course, becomes a problem for us to be able to account and be able to tell the stories of these people and to get policies in place that positively affect them in their lives.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Wow. I think many of us take our citizenship for granted, whatever country we are a citizen of. But I want our listeners to really understand why this matters. Can you tell me, for an individual who is stateless what some of the practical consequences of being stateless are?

KRISTY BELTON: For you, or even the listeners, take a moment and reflect upon what it is you do in your daily life that first required you to prove that you are who you say you are. This might be something like basic things—getting a loan, buying a car, enrolling in school, getting vaccines—things that we don’t even think much about but that we have to prove that we are who we are. Stateless people can’t do that. They lack legal personality. They are, therefore, unable to perform almost any activity that requires you to have a legal persona.

If you think about a parent who has to sue, for instance, another parent for child support, they are not going to be able to do that if they’re stateless. Somebody who wants to, as I mentioned, obtain a loan, open a bank account, they’re not going to be able to do that if they’re stateless. Enrolling in secondary, or even tertiary, education in some countries around the world is not possible if you’re stateless.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) says that every child has the right to education. But this is only a right through primary school. Once primary school is over, there is no legal obligation—from the international perspective at least—to provide an education to children. So stateless children, oftentimes their human right to an education is going unfulfilled.

I have made the argument in other works that you could literally look at every single human right that we allegedly have according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you will find stateless people whose rights fulfillment on every single one of those counts is made vulnerable because they civilly do not exist. When you civilly do not exist, in the sense that you don’t exist in the eyes of the law, you lack this legal personality, every other right is open to, not manipulation, but open to being violated. So the stateless are in an extremely vulnerable position.

I am hoping I answered that. Really anything that requires you to prove that you are who you say you are is going to be practically impossible for a stateless person to be able to do.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Yes. Thank you for painting that picture for us. I think it really brings home how important of an issue this is and why it’s so important that we need to end statelessness globally, and end it for good.

It seems that many people wrongly conflate statelessness with migration, and I see this even in academia in papers I read where the two seem to be used synonymously sometimes. Where does this confusion come from, and why is it wrong?

KRISTY BELTON: I hesitate to say that it’s necessarily wrong because there are some stateless people who have migrated, so they have sometimes crossed an international border, for instance. In my work I do not like to associate statelessness with migration. I’ll get to why that is in a moment.

In terms of the historical background as to why there is such a strong association in people’s minds with statelessness and migration, it really goes all the way back to the early to mid-20th century when you had these authoritarian regimes in place that were effectively stripping away the citizenship of, or denationalizing, their own citizens because they were of a different political persuasion or they were a different ethnic or religious group. So they would strip these people of their citizenship to more easily exile them or dispose of them or whatever the case may be.

A lot of people who had the means would flee across borders to try to escape this kind of treatment. So there was this association built, even in the literature of the time. Hannah Arendt, for instance, she herself was a stateless person, but she’s a very famous 20th-century political theorist. Even in her own work she associates statelessness with migration. She would talk about how one of the ways of resolving statelessness from a government perspective at the time was to repatriate people.

Repatriation means sending people back to their own country. The stateless don’t have a country of their own to go back to, at least not today. Statelessness today is a different phenomenon in many ways to the statelessness that was occurring especially around the World War II era. But the association occurred because at the time people who were stateless oftentimes were also forced migrants.

In today’s societies statelessness is not a result of migration necessarily. The people that I work with in the Caribbean, for instance, yes, a lot of them are the descendants of people who have come from other places; maybe their parents migrated, maybe their grandparents migrated. But these people themselves, they are born in a state; they don’t come from somewhere else; they know of no other home, speak no other language, and so forth. They are not migrants; they are part of at least the cultural fabric of a given society, even as they are politically and legally and socioeconomically excluded.

So statelessness does not equate to migration, although we do find cases of migration being one of those—I wouldn’t call causes—but a phenomenon that can result in statelessness.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: You touched on the Caribbean and statelessness as a form of forced displacement, which is an argument you make in your forthcoming book. You argue that we need to reconceptualize statelessness as a form of forced displacement. Can you explain what you mean by this?

KRISTY BELTON: This seems a little ironic, in a sense, based on the answer that I just gave. I don’t like to equate statelessness with forced migration because stateless people for the most part are born and raised in a given state. They don’t move somewhere else. These are people who face an array of human rights violations—restrictions upon their movement; they lack protection—but they don’t cross borders. The kind of situation they face occurs under non-crisis and non-conflict situations. It is often carried out by states that are also democratic in nature.

We can get more into how is it possible that statelessness is being created or maintained by democracies, as well as non-democracies later, but for right now my central argument is simply that stateless people are displaced in place. I use the concept of “rooted displacement” in my book. It basically means that these individuals are rooted. They are born in a place; they know of no other home; they don’t move; this is their home, even as their home excludes them. So they’re rooted but they’re displaced.

We can look at their displacement from two different angles. The first is they suffer many of the same effects of forced displacement that others who are forcibly displaced face. Often when we think about forced displacement we think about internally displaced persons, so individuals who flee their homes because of conflict, persecution, and crisis; but they remain within their home state’s borders, so they are internally displaced.

The other groups that we typically associate with forced displacement are those who flee across international borders, again because of conflict, crisis, or persecution. The stateless, I think, are not movers; they’re displaced in place, in situ. But they suffer again the same immobilization that other kinds of forcibly displaced persons face. This is a second aspect of it.

The first is that they’re rooted, they are from a given place, they are not movers, but they are displaced in the form of being immobilized. So it’s not displacement in terms of being forcibly moved across a border or within a home state, although this does occur. Even today there are stateless persons who are forced to flee because they have been rendered stateless. This is the prime example of the Rohingya that I brought up earlier. They are being forced to flee because of the atrocities being committed against them as non-citizens in the country of their birth right now in Myanmar. There are other examples that exist of this.

If we were to think about displacement from a different perspective, displacement not necessarily as being equated to movement, as being a form of immobilization, then we can see that the stateless are prevented from being self-determining agents. They are unable to carry out what we would consider to be key life projects. Because they are unable to access or fully enjoy their rights to work, to health, to an education, their inability to marry legally in the face of the law, these are all major obstacles that impair them in their ability to be who it is they want to be in this lifetime. So they are immobilized.

In my own research in the Caribbean, you talk with these individuals who are stateless, and they have these—like everybody else does—dreams of what it is they want to do, who they want to be, the changes they want to effect. But they come up constantly against obstacles because they are not citizens of anywhere, which doubly compounds the predicament—”predicament” seems so soft, and “invisibility” isn’t the right term either—but the oftentimes horrific situation they’re in.

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu talks about the two ways to kill human beings in society. The first one is the biological or the physical, homicide; you kill another human being. But the second one is “civicide,” where you kill a person in the sense of preventing them from existing as a person before the law. That is exactly what the stateless suffer. So you can imagine that this has detrimental effects upon people’s psyches. You’re being told that you don’t belong, you’re legally excluded and often socioeconomically excluded, but this is a place that you think is home.

It is extremely troubling to say the least. I think in talking out loud about this, it almost seems as if: “Okay, well, they don’t have citizenship, they meet these obstacles, but you know, they’re in a place, they’re not in a crisis situation necessarily, they’re not undergoing persecution necessarily.”

I think one of the problems is because many of them do not suffer in a situation of humanitarian urgency there has been less attention paid to them, when in fact they do suffer immensely. Again, I go back to my earlier response of think of anything you want to do in life that requires you to show your legal persona, to exist in a civil sense of the word, and imagine the obstacles that you face in just trying to conduct daily activities, much less dream long term about situations.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: You mentioned that the stateless have not gotten enough attention. I think that’s why we’re really glad that you’ve written these essays for us, to bring more attention to the issue.

Let’s talk about how we can end statelessness. I want to specifically talk about the Americas, because this is the subject of your second essay, which appears in our Spring issue. One of the things that situates the Americas so well to be the first region to end statelessness is the widespread practice of jus soli and jus sanguinis throughout the region. Can you tell us what these principles are and why they are so common in the Americas yet so rare elsewhere?

KRISTY BELTON: The principle of jus soli means that a person acquires citizenship simply by being born in a given territory. We can think of soli as incorporating soil within it. So people born on a country’s soil obtain citizenship through no merit of their own, not through ancestry; it’s just because they were born there. That is jus soli.

The second is jus sanguinis. Jus sanguinis is citizenship through descent, your mother, maybe even your grandparents; your parents or your grandparents had citizenship from a given state and they pass that citizenship on to you. With sanguinis you see sang, which is French for blood. So that’s another way of remembering that one.

Most states around the world bestow citizenship to people through one of these two means.

The Americas, as you know, have been particularly lauded for their jus soli citizenship provisions. With the exception of fewer than a handful of states, the majority of states in the Americas bestow citizenship because you were born in the territory of that state. There are historical reasons as to why the Americas are so strongly situated in this jus soli citizenship provision. It is based pretty much upon their colonial history. As a means of drawing or attracting immigrants to the region, these colonial powers that then became independent states, could offer jus soli.

The Americas, due to their colonial history, implemented citizenship through birth on the soil very early on. It was a means of attracting immigrants to come and settle in the territories and then have families who would then become citizens of the independent countries. It was a means of growing their population. It is also important to think about the fact that because these former colonies were countries of immigration—they were trying to draw people in—these people came from a variety of places, whether it be Asia, Europe, and so forth. They were, therefore, not homogeneous populations.

Typically, when you see jus sanguinis being the primary means of granting citizenship to people, it’s because the state, or at least the elites in the state, have constructed a story that this is what the nation is, this is what the nation looks like; we’ve passed citizenship on through descent as a means of maintaining a specific national group as being that of the state.

In a country of jus soli,where you’re trying to attract and keep people from other countries that are coming from all these different places and have these different cultures and so forth, there is no homogeneity in the population. We also have to remember that there are indigenous peoples already present in the Americas during these colonial times. So there is this huge diversity.

So how do you go about unifying this kind of diversity? We base our formal belonging on something other than blood. We base it on birth on the soil and believing in specific principles. Whether these principles be liberty or equality, whatever it is that they stated in their constitution, it was just a more effective means of unifying a diverse group of people, and also of drawing others into these countries to grow their populations.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: In your essay you mentioned one very prominent case of statelessness in the Americas, and it involves the arbitrary denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Every time I came across that reference in your essay I was very curious about it. I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit more about that case.

KRISTY BELTON: Sure. The situation of citizens of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic is a longstanding one. It has garnered a lot of international and regional attention from bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Caribbean Community, and so forth. It has been a focus of attention for a while, and for good reason.

You have people who are Dominicans by law who have been denationalized, stripped of their citizenship by the Dominican authorities. The motivation for this is considered to be racial discrimination. Of course, the Dominican government will claim that this is not a matter of racial discrimination as to why individuals of Haitian descent have been stripped of their citizenship; it is a matter of us simply properly executing our laws. Most scholars who study the case of statelessness in the Dominican Republic, myself included, will say that this appears to be an example of racial discrimination, so arbitrarily depriving people of their nationality because of their race.

This is no simple case. It is highly possible that there will be different answers to the question of why this is happening. To make it clear, I suppose, as clear as I can for the people who are listening, the Dominican Republic has for a long time operated on the notion that you have to have certified copies of your birth certificate pretty much in order to do anything. There is a set period of time where your birth certificate expires, and you have to go to the civil registry office and you have to have your birth certificate renewed.

There have been multiple cases evidenced over the years when Dominicans of Haitian descent go to the civil registry office to have their birth certificates renewed, the civil registry officers take the birth certificates and fail to renew them and do not give the old documents back to the Dominicans of Haitian descent. So these individuals then are stripped of any proof of their Dominican citizenship. This is one example. That had been occurring for many years.

There was a famous case in 2005 where the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard the case of Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico. These are two young Dominican girls who went to the civil registry office to get their birth certificates, and the civil registry office that they went to refused to give them their birth certificates. These are girls who were born in the Dominican Republic to mothers who were born in the Dominican Republic.

The case made its way up to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said: No, the Dominican Republic is in violation of its own laws; they need to give these girls their birth certificates; and there were some other measures in the ruling. The Dominican government ended up providing these two plaintiffs their birth certificates.

But after this ruling things became progressively worse. I have some people that I have interviewed down in the Dominican Republic who will say, “You know, for several years, yes, we were aware that Dominicans of Haitian descent were basically facing this violation of their human right to a nationality. But it appeared sporadic. It was individual rogue officers who were denying their citizenship documents or failing to renew them. After the 2005 Inter-American Court decision, it seemed as if it became systemic, a systematic policy of the Dominican government to try to strip these individuals of their citizenship.”

So over time there were various resolutions and circulars, basically internal government documents that were circulated, that instructed civil registry officers to investigate the cases of people who were allegedly holding Dominican citizenship without proper authorization.

Oftentimes it was found that people who “looked”—whatever this is supposed to mean—as if they might be of Haitian descent, who had a Haitian-sounding name like Jacques or Pierre, these individuals were the ones whose cases were investigated to find out whether they should actually hold Dominican citizenship. Their cases were left to just languish. Nobody bothered to make a decision on their cases either way. So this is another aspect of the problem.

You would have local courts within the Dominican Republic ruling favorably for these people who were facing these, let’s say, bureaucratic difficulties. It’s not that they were being denationalized by a particular law; it’s that they were being denationalized by administrative fiat, basically the civil registry officers, these bureaucrats, failing to renew their citizenship documents. But the effects were the same as if they had been denationalized by law at the time. So there were these local courts that ruled positively, that said, “You know, these local civil registry offices need to be giving these Dominicans back their Dominican citizenship documents.” Of course, sometimes the local offices would honor the ruling, but for the most part they would not.

There is anecdotal evidence that civil registry officers, certain ones, would go into communities and have migrant parents sign blank documents—we still don’t know really what these documents entailed. This is again anecdotal; I stress that. We are not sure why they were made to sign these blank documents. Was it so that their signatures or their marking could be placed on an official document that stated, “Yes, I was an irregular situation where my child was born in the Dominican Republic”?

To pause for a moment here, you have these different bureaucratic machinations going on. You have the lower courts that are trying to resolve this situation, but their rulings aren’t effectively being implemented in practice. Then, you have these various resolutions, those circulars, that are being passed that instruct these civil registry offices to basically in practice discriminate against Dominicans of Haitian descent—in practice, but not legally; this is not through law per se.

It was in 2013 that this came to a head. The Dominican Constitutional Court in 2013 basically heard a similar case to what the 2005 Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard. There was this case of a young lady, Juliana Deguis Pierre, who had been denied her birth certificate when she went to a civil registry office, similar to what Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico had faced.

The Constitutional Court in 2013 opined that “these civil registry officers are not acting in a discriminatory fashion when they’re denying citizenship documents to these people because, in fact, these people who think they’re Dominican should not have been given Dominican citizenship in the first place because their parents often”—and this is where the migration comes in—”or their grandparents were in the country, in the Dominican Republic, without permission, unauthorized. And because their parents or grandparents were unauthorized and registered their children born in the Dominican Republic through documents that are no longer acceptable, the descendants of these migrants should not have Dominican citizenship.”

So think of it as a retroactive application of an interpretation, and then it became the retroactive interpretation of the law. By that I mean for the longest time in the Dominican Republic you were born on this soil, you were a Dominican citizen, and this is through various renditions of the Dominican constitution. The only exceptions were if you were a child born to diplomats, you do not become a Dominican citizen at birth through jus soli; if you are a child born to in-transit migrants, whether these be students, individuals who cross borders and engage in petty commerce, whatever it is, people who were present for less than 10 days, their children—no citizenship.

So it’s just those two exceptions really. If you’re born to a diplomat—no citizenship; if you’re in the country for less than 10 days, you’re in transit—no citizenship. But other than that, jus soli holds. There was no connotation of legality or illegality, whether you were documented, undocumented, or so forth.

The fact of the matter is the parents—or more specifically, going back a generation even further, to the heyday in the 1930s, the sugarcane industry—came over with the permission of the Dominican government to work on the sugarcane plantations. They were given these special work permits and ID cards called fiches. It is with these fiches that they registered their children, and they became Dominican citizens through birth on the soil, again because they weren’t considered illegal. Then their children got registered and so forth.

What the Constitutional Court basically ruled in 2013 was these people should never have been given Dominican citizenship because now we have a different interpretation of what it means to be in transit.

John, this is where things can get even more complicated. There was a law passed in 2004 that basically equated being a non-resident, non-citizen, to being in transit. This was a position of illegality, basically. It caused an uproar in the migrant rights and the human rights community in the Dominican Republic because people who had been living in the Dominican Republic for decades and who had children who were born in the Dominican Republic, who effectively had made a life there, had been living there for decades, and again had been there with permission and had fiches and so forth, were being equated with being illegal.

This interpretation in 2004 of basically equating the in-transit clause to being something different than the 10-day law that they had had since the 1930s took effect. To go back to the 2013 Constitutional Court decision, it basically paved the way for the retroactive application of the law. The Dominican government was given permission to go all the way back to 1929, the birth registration books, and try to figure out who registered through these unauthorized means. These unauthorized means, such as using the fiche, are actually a modern-day interpretation of what documents are permissible or not. Those documents were permissible to register your child as being Dominican when they were born on Dominican soil at that time. So this is a retroactive application here.

Since then, the Dominican government has tried, primarily because of the international outcry and the pressure put on them by the Organization of American States, for instance, and NGOs—I don’t want to make this seem as if they are only trying to address this issue of intergovernmental organizations—there has been a lot of important pressure placed on the Dominican government by civil society actors themselves. They play a key role, I think, in making the Dominican government think about how can we ameliorate the problem that the 2013 constitutional court decision made; how can we rectify the fact that there was an estimated anywhere from tens to a couple of hundred thousand Dominicans stripped of Dominican citizenship because of that 2013 ruling.

Because of civil society, because of some intergovernmental organizations, the government of the Dominican Republic has tried to ameliorate the situation. Depending on one’s perspective, it has had some successes, but there are still many people who are affected by the 2013 decision and who are still stateless in the Dominican Republic.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: So it sounds like in the Dominican Republic’s case the problem is partially due to administrative procedure and it also has to do with, as you said, new legal interpretation. I’m wondering if there are any countries in the Americas where there is actually an effort to change the legal environment, to change the laws in such a way that they could exacerbate statelessness, for example, by ending jus soli or jus sanguinis.

KRISTY BELTON: There is nowhere to my knowledge that there is any momentum to end jus soli outside of the minority, I would say, within the United States that is promulgating a change in this regard—birthright citizenship is a highly regarded principle of law within the Americas in general.

There are countries that through their laws exacerbate the situation of statelessness. I can give the example of the Bahamas, where I do some of my fieldwork. In their constitution it does not ban discrimination based upon gender. Last summer, in 2016, there was a referendum where people got to vote on whether or not they wanted to place gender equality in the constitution and whether or not they wanted to allow women to be able to pass on their nationality on par with their male counterparts.

According to Bahamian nationality law, if a child is born to a Bahamian mother but this child is born overseas and the child’s father—the parents are married, so the Bahamian woman is married to a foreign man, she gives birth to a child overseas—that woman is not allowed to pass on her citizenship to her child. This question of whether a woman can pass on her citizenship equally to her male counterpart failed in the Bahamas. Women are still not allowed to pass on their citizenship equally to their male counterparts, and gender was not inserted in the Bahamian constitution as a prohibited means of discrimination.

We have no evidence that I am aware of. There has been no study to date that examines what the effects are of these Bahamian citizenship provisions, whether it be the nationality law or the constitution. How many children are affected by this gender discriminatory legal provision? We don’t know. What I can speak to is that it allows for statelessness to happen. It allows for statelessness to be maintained. But again we don’t have evidence that points to how many people are actually affected by this.

I can speak for my own personal story. My mother is Bahamian. She was married to an Englishman. She gave birth to me outside of the country and she wasn’t able to pass on her citizenship to me. I got citizenship, luckily, because my father’s country is a country of jus sanguinis, so he got to pass it on through descent. But you could imagine I could have been in a situation where my father was from a country that passed citizenship on through descent but only if you were born in the same country as he was, for instance.

So there are restrictions on jus sanguinis acquisition and jus soli acquisition globally. Each country differs in terms of the restrictions it places. It is not simple.

This is another reason why statelessness exists, because there is no overarching structure at the global level that allocates people to this land, within these borders, as a citizen or another. It is up to each state to determine who belongs and on what basis and how they can be deprived. This is why there are just so many ways a person can be rendered stateless just as a matter of technicality on a legal issue outside of discrimination and implosion of states and so forth.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: You mentioned an overarching global framework to plug the gaps in all the various states’ legal architectures. We saw in 2014 the United Nations started this new campaign, the #IBelong campaign, and published a Global Action Plan to End Statelessness. So we’re seeing a very strong international effort, or what seems to be a very strong international effort, to actually end statelessness globally.

What are the greatest challenges here to actually once and for all ending statelessness, and how do we sustain the effort that the United Nations has started with this 2014 campaign?

KRISTY BELTON: I think one of the primary challenges, John, is simply that there are so many grounds upon which a person is rendered stateless. The statelessness situation in one country isn’t necessarily the same as why it happened in another.

To go back to the fact that we don’t have some kind of global body that allocates citizenship to people, it is going to be very difficult to eradicate statelessness because of the fact that we rely on states to change their own practices of nationality denial or deprivation to resolve the issue. It is relying on the very entity that creates statelessness to change it, which obviously we need the states to change. We need the states to modify laws or properly apply their own laws. We need the states to create what I discuss, I believe, in my second essay, with national action plans to specifically address statelessness.

If we only take a statist vantage point and only consider how states can resolve this issue, we will not resolve it, because there are too many states on the planet that simply ignore the fact that statelessness exists.

Outside of this issue that there is no global governance structure—let’s put that aside; that’s not going to come about anytime in the near future to allocate human beings here or there. If we could just have states recognize that statelessness is an issue, that statelessness is a problem within their very own borders, this will go so far in addressing the issues that surround statelessness, the issues that surround how the human right to a nationality, its nonfulfillment, causes this domino effect in people’s lives.

The mere fact of non-recognition of the problem is one of the biggest problems to resolving it. We can talk about other issues—statelessness in the developing world; we have inadequate data collection, we don’t really know who is stateless and where and what specific problems they’re facing; we don’t have enough of their stories; we don’t know what it is they want. For instance, outside of having their human right to a nationality fulfilled, if that can’t happen, what else could we provide to them so that they could have a stable status in their home state even when citizenship is not available to them?

We don’t know what it is that they want, what they need. We think we do. But, because they often, as you mentioned earlier, fly under the radar, their notion of what it means to belong and how they want to belong escapes us.

We lack that important element of the stateless people themselves being their own agents of change, their own drivers. But it is so extremely difficult in the highly precarious and vulnerable situation that they live under and in to be those drivers. So you need civil society to become involved.

But civil society isn’t really going to become involved in an issue if they don’t really know the issue exists. This is another problem that we need to address. We need more civil society involvement and not to depend on states or intergovernmental organizations to address this alone. It cannot be done solely by states and their representatives, because again I stress it is states, through their exclusionary citizenship practices that made people stateless in the first place. So you cannot depend on them for the answers, but they are, of course, a pivotal, primary actor in resolving statelessness.

I think really there have been some amazing things that have happened. I began studying statelessness in 2004. Back then, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had two people who were part-time appointed to look at statelessness issues. Fast-forward a decade-plus later, and you have protection officers stationed in various parts around the globe; you have more money being allocated to addressing statelessness; you actually have declarations being issued by various regional governmental bodies that acknowledge statelessness and say, “Hey, this is what we should do about it.” Yes, we can argue this is lip service, but that very lip service is in print, that we as civil society members can then use to hold governments accountable on the issue of statelessness.

So it is an interplay. We need civil society, we need states, but we can’t have just one set of actors or one kind of actor being the ones driving the show.

In the past 10 years, within the Asia Pacific a strong civil society network was established. You’ve got the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness here based out of Washington, DC. In Europe there are quite a few of them. Civil society is slowly coming onboard. But in so many places where statelessness continues to be a major problem civil society is not always aware that an issue exists, and this is again where the problem of governmental non-recognition or non-acknowledgment of a problem can be consequential.

But on the flip side, it’s oftentimes civil society that draws governments’ attention to issues, and so it’s a matter of sustaining the efforts of those civil society members that are already engaged in this. That was part of your question, how do you sustain it? You have podcasts like this so people can become aware that this is a blight on humanity of sorts. You’re supposed to be a citizen of somewhere.

There is no international norm. There is no recognition that you have the right to be voluntarily stateless. Every person on the planet is supposed to belong somewhere. So when you have these estimated at least 10 million people on the globe that fall out of this web, this is a problem from the perspective of justice.

Then you can look at it from the perspective of the individuals themselves. We are privileged. The citizenship that we hold, even if it’s from a country that is perhaps not the best in terms of civil rights and liberties and so forth, having a citizenship of somewhere gives you a standing in the face of others, in the face of the courts and so forth. And we do nothing to merit the citizenship we hold—nothing. We weren’t in our mothers’ wombs saying, “Hey, ma, I want to be born here.”

So it’s a matter of fairness, of equality, of treating people with respect and acknowledging that they too have the right to be self-determining agents like we citizens do.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: I think that’s a really powerful point. I’m glad that you made that. As much as I’d like to continue this conversation, unfortunately our time is up.

Once again, I’m John Krzyzaniak, and I’ve been speaking with Kristy Belton, author of two recent essays on statelessness that have appeared in the journal, the most recent of which is titled “Heeding the Clarion Call in the Americas: The Quest to End Statelessness.” Those essays, as well as much more, are available online at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on Twitter, @eiajournal.

Thank you to everyone for listening, and a sincere thanks to you, Kristy, for this enlightening discussion. It has been a pleasure.

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Category: International Law and Human Rights, Interview, Migration, Podcast

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