Rarely do I realize how complex the human body is until something goes wrong. When I get sick or injured, I’m suddenly acutely aware of the discrepancy between what my body is doing versus what it should be doing, and I find myself pining for normal. But once I reach normal again, I forget to be grateful for my health…until the next time I get sick.
This is a fairly common characteristic of being human, I think. When our lives are functioning well – whether it be our bodies, our relationships, or our finances – we tend not to think about them too much. But when we experience lack in any of these areas, it’s hard to think about anything else.
For most of us, our daily concerns oscillate back and forth between various things like work (finding a job, dealing with a difficult boss, managing stress), school (getting good grades, applying to a certain university, selecting the right classes), family (planning a wedding, running after little kids, taking care of ailing parents), travel (affording a vacation, getting time off work), moving (researching a good city or area to live, finding a house or apartment), making ends meet (qualifying for a bank loan, learning to budget), and health (booking a doctor’s appointment, waiting for test results, taking medications).
But there’s probably one thing that most of us don’t worry about or even think about on a regular basis – something that profoundly affects each and every one of these areas of our lives yet is invisible to us. Citizenship. Without citizenship, it is very difficult (and often impossible) to get work, attend school, take care of family, travel to another country, buy a house, pay the bills, or get medical care.
Just like we don’t think about the miraculous complexity of our bodies until something goes wrong, we tend not to think about our citizenship unless we don’t have one.
I’m not talking about immigrants who have a citizenship in their home country and apply for citizenship in a new country – I’m talking about people who have never had citizenship anywhere. They are stateless, unregistered in any system, unrecognized by any government, unprotected by any legal system. And there are between 10 and 15 million of them globally.
The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion points out some of the main causes of statelessness:
Conflicts in nationality laws: Some countries grant citizenship based on nationality, and others give it based on place of birth. When these conflict, a person can be left without citizenship in either country. As a personal example, I was born in Kenya to parents who were Canadian citizens. If Canada had refused to give me citizenship because I wasn’t born in Canada, and Kenya refused to give me citizenship because my parents weren’t Kenyan, I would have been stateless. Thankfully, I had Canadian citizenship from birth, but many children aren’t so fortunate.
State succession: When part of a state secedes and becomes independent, or when a state dissolves into multiple new states, nationality becomes a question mark. A good example of this is the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. An estimated 85% of stateless persons reported in Europe can be found in just four countries (Latvia, Russian, Estonia and Ukraine). The high rates of statelessness include people with expired Soviet passports who haven’t been able to acquire the nationality of the state in which they reside. The Terminal, a charming comedy with Tom Hanks, demonstrates some of the repercussions of sudden statelessness.
Arbitrary deprivation of nationality: This is when a state denies nationality to a specific group of people, based on ethnicity, language or religion. The Rohingya people, for example, have been denied citizenship in Burma, despite living there for generations.
Administrative barriers & lack of documentation: In some cases, people simply have difficulty accessing birth or other forms of civil registration, and without proof of place or date of birth or parentage, the state may reject them as nationals.
Inheritance of statelessness: This is the single biggest cause of statelessness globally. If a parent is stateless, chances are their child will be as well. These children will never know the protection of nationality.
One of the side effects of statelessness is that people become very vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, including human trafficking. Here’s what that looks like:
- You’re not able to work legitimately, but you have to make a living somehow, so you’re more likely to seek out income in clandestine industries that are more dangerous
- You may be more willing to do desperate things, like believe a trafficker’s job offer in another country
- If you go missing, you’re not registered anywhere so the police/the government have no reason to launch an investigation or look for you
- You’re likely to be uneducated because you weren’t allowed to attend school, so if you’re trafficked, you may not even be able to read helpline information at airports or bus stations
A year ago, the UN launched the #ibelong campaign to raise awareness about statelessness, with the goal of stamping it out by 2024. Today, they’ve released a new report on child statelessness, and urging everyone to sign the this open letter.
Working together to end statelessness is a worthy goal, and for those of us who want to end human trafficking, this is a piece of that process. So let us consciously think about our citizenship today and express our gratitude by lending a voice on behalf of those who are stateless.
Because being a human should never be illegal.