By Brent Hamoud
Much has been made of US President Trump’s executive decisions temporarily banning select nationals and refugees from entering the USA. The order has been met with opposition in forums ranging from airport terminals to federal courts, which have so far blocked the executive decision from going into full implementation. The ban stirred strong feelings across the globe; there is something about singling out particular nationalities and rejecting the extremely vulnerable that simply does not sit well in the hearts of many. (The topic received the IMES treatment here.)
While I personally have been unsettled by the logic and the implications of Trump’s proposed travel and refugee resettlement ban, I see it as a comparatively small issue compared to a much larger, harsher ban that has been enduring for the better part of the past century. It is a ban that does not simply block certain individuals from entering into a particular political nation-state but prevents individuals from formally entering into the global community of nation-states. It does not target those of a particular nationality but rather denies nationality all together. The ban I am most concerned about does not garner newspaper headlines or opposition in the streets and the courtrooms, but lingers unnoticed in the shadows as it holds down the lives of millions around the world. The ban I most lament is statelessness.
A stateless person is anyone:
“Who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”[a]
The global phenomenon renders an estimated 15 million people without any form of official nationality, or citizenship, and denies them their fundamental universal human right of nationality. Nationality is precisely fundamental because it is the right that allows us to access a host of other rights, and without it a person is effectively left “rights-less.” The stateless exist within our world but lack the nationality necessary to provide belonging and secure protections within our political structures and institutions. They are essentially banned from being citizens of this world and are left to struggle through life as “invisible people.”
Numerous factors contribute to statelessness, many of which are rooted in blatant discrimination. Entire people groups are rejected by the state and denied recognition as nationals (such as the cases of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Bedoon in Kuwait). Gender discrimination in nationality laws denies women their right to transmit nationality to their children and can leave children without access to any form of citizenship. Statelessness can also emerge from unfortunate circumstances, such as when marriages or births are not registered, when new nation-states are created and individuals are omitted from the emergent polity, or when children fall through the gaps of nationality laws and end up without any claim to citizenship. Too often statelessness is inherited as stateless generation produces stateless generation. Statelessness is never a choice; the victims are not responsible for their condition. The majority of stateless individuals have never left their home country. The problem is they have never been accepted in their home country, and no other country is willing to claim them as its own. They are effectively banned from this world.
It is not difficult to grasp the implications of statelessness. We only need to think about everything we do and every experience we have that requires some form of official identification. All of these are either impossible or extremely complicated for the stateless. This includes:
- Attending school and university
- Gaining legal employment
- Traveling across and within borders
- Accessing health care
- Renting, Owning or inheriting property
- Legally marrying and registering children
From the cradle to the grave, statelessness impacts all areas of life and serves as the epitome of marginalization. In the absence of rights, the stateless face a heightened risk of human trafficking, sexual and labor exploitation, unlawful detention and many other human rights violations.
Statelessness is a truly global problem stretching from Europe to Africa and Asia to the Americas. The MENA region suffers chronic statelessness in numerous contexts due to a myriad of historical, political and social forces. Particular people groups failed to receive nationality during the 20th century state-creation program (including members of the Bedouin, Kurdish and Dom (Gypsy) communities). In the majority of MENA countries, women are not allowed to pass citizenship to their children on equal grounds as men, which is a major barrier to protecting children from falling into statelessness (as is the case in Lebanon in Syria). Additionally, historical displacement crises have resulted in large numbers of stateless populations. More than 4 million Palestinians, both as refugees and residents of Palestine, boast no claim to nation-state membership.[b] The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has produced tens of thousands of babies born into displacement situations where challenges in registering births and completing the processes of nationality acquisition leave children at heightened risk of future statelessness.
Facts present the nature of statelessness but individual lives tell the story. Beyond the statistics are stories of children who have never had the opportunity to attend school because their lives were never registered, young men and woman unable pursue their dreams because they are not accepted as citizens of anywhere, and partners deeply in love but denied the blessing of marriage because one has no proof of official existence. Should we not be troubled to live in a world where cats and dogs are issued travel documents and allowed travel around the world while human beings are left without any documentation or recognition of their humanity?
Statelessness is not only a paradox of our modern times but a contradiction to God’s design for creation. In scripture we read how God created places and created all people to be rooted securely in land, society, and community. It is something we call in theological terms implacement, the very idea that our humanity is tied to having a place and being implaced where we are. This is why everyone everywhere desires a home somewhere in this world. A tragedy of sin is displacement, the uprooting and denial of place. Displacement effectively dehumanizes its victims and bans them from actualizing God’s intention for humanity. Political theorist Hannah Arendt likens displacement and statelessness as an “expulsion from humanity altogether.”[c] Unfortunately, too few recognize this.
What must be recognized is that every human being testifies to the imago dei, God’s image apparent in every individual. Though the stateless lack a national status, they have a human status that entitles them to every amount of worth and value. The stateless belong to God and they certainly belong in this world. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize that political citizenship, though very important, is limited. It can never deliver promises of human wholeness and security. Our hope is in the truth declared by the Apostle Paul:
“Our citizenship is in heaven.”
That true belonging, true citizenship, is found only in God’s heavenly kingdom is good news to all, but how much more of a comfort it is to those who will pass through this world knowing no other citizenship than their heavenly citizenship. Stateless followers of Christ have insight into this mystery of the kingdom in ways that “citizens” do not, and the Church would do well to listen to the prophetic voices of the stateless as they speak from their earthly position to magnify great truths about what citizenship truly means.
The Church today must be concerned with the two hands of citizenship: membership in our global political community and membership in God’s kingdom. For if one gains an earthly citizenship but has not heavenly citizenship then she has gained very little. Yet if one gains heavenly citizenship but has not an earthly citizenship then he misses out on much. Wholeness requires a dual citizenship: citizenship on earth and citizenship in heaven. Such a status will trump any ban.
To take action against statelessness, please join the UNHCR #Ibelong campaign and add your name to the open letter declaring that every person has a right to nationality.
For information, trainings and resources about statelessness visit the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion. A study and toolkit for addressing statelessness in the Syria refugee context is available here.
Brent Hamoud graduated in 2016 from IMES’ Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program, his final project focusing on “Statelessness in Lebanon: A Theological Exploration of Place and Belonging within the Global Community of Nation-States.” Brent serves as Programs Manager for a boys home in Mount Lebanon associated with Kids Alive International and oversees a literacy program in South Lebanon.
The global stateless population of 15 million is offered by researchers at the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion. UNHCR uses a figure of 10 million but does not include stateless persons counted within other UN agencies, such as Palestinians registered in the UNRWA.
 Nationality laws are primarily built on the pillars of jus soli (law of soil) and jus sanguinis (law of blood). In circumstances when a state’s nationalities laws do not account for irregularities a person can find himself/herself without a legal path to citizenship.
[a] UNHCR, “Introductory Note,” 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Person, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2014), 3.
[b] Shiblak, Abbas. “Stateless Palestinians.” Forced Migration Review 26 (2006):8-9
[c] Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1958. 297.