According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently at least 10 million stateless people in the world, a third of whom are children. These numbers are likely an underestimation, considering how difficult it is to measure statelessness. Stateless people face major obstacles to accessing basic rights, such as healthcare, housing, education, employment, and the right of movement, as they are denied identification or travel documents allowing them to claim those rights. They have difficulties registering their children, marrying, and even being buried. They are exposed to all sorts of human rights abuses, including human trafficking, labor exploitation, and long-term detention.
In his reflection on the figure of the foreigner, Zygmunt Bauman claims that traitors and heretics –disbelievers within the community of believers—are more persecuted than infidels and enemies, because they challenge the absolute limit between “us” and “them,” and therefore, the very existence of a strictly defined “us.” The figure of the foreigner evokes this combination of “insideness” and “outsideness” that characterizes traitors and heretics: at times similar enough to be trusted, at times different enough to be feared. The stateless person, a foreigner everywhere, is the ultimate embodiment of this tension. In my research about different situations of in situ statelessness, one thing that stands out is that those who are stateless are in many respects no different than those who are recognized citizens: they dress similarly, speak the same language, call the same places home. It is no surprise that stateless people are depicted by different governments as disloyal to the nation and undeserving of the membership to which they have a legitimate claim: their existence is a reminder that the line separating “us” and “them” is nothing more than a line drawn in the sand.
Not only do stateless people not fit the mold of the citizen, given that they are not recognized as citizens anywhere; they also don’t fit the mold of the foreigner, for the same reason. The existence of statelessness shows that the model of a world of nation-states is far from representing reality. Some people belong to places where they will never have their legitimate right to membership recognized, whether or not they look, act, and speak like those who do.
While it appears to be a deviation from the otherwise prevailing model of the national citizen, statelessness shines a light on the precarious status of many others, and the danger this precariousness poses. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German thinker who fled Nazism and was a stateless refugee for over a decade, saw this clearly, and referred to statelessness as a “contagious disease” that spread to all those who were not birthright citizens, including naturalized citizens and foreigners. The existence of statelessness means there is a category of people who are left unprotected by the law, which opens the gate for states to strip legal protections from those who currently have them. Who is “in” and who is “out” when so many don’t fit the mold? Statelessness affects specific individuals and groups, but it reveals the flaws of the entire system that governs our collective life.