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Citizens of Nowhere

Citizens of Nowhere

By Laura Secorun Palet

Hundreds of stateless Arab demonstrate to demand citizenship and other rights before Kuwait's elite anti-riot police uses tear gas to disperse them in Jahra, 50kms west of Kuwait City, on March 11, 2011.
SourceYasser El-Zayyat/Getty


Because citizenship is, de facto, your right to have rights, and millions don’t have it.

By Laura Secorun Palet

No nationality, no citizenship, no rights.

That may sound like a signposting outside your local convenience store, but it’s actually a frustrating real-life limbo for millions of people worldwide.

The causes of statelessness vary from simple administrative errors like failing to register a baby’s birth to legal disputes between countries. Sometimes states cease to exist altogether, leaving citizens in search of new homes. And all too often, statelessness is used as a weapon against ethnic groups, with nations persecuting populations they’d prefer to see leave by simply denying their existence.

Men protesting with signs during the day

Stateless Arabic people, known as bidoon, take part in a protest in Jahra, Kuwait, to demand citizenship and other basic rights.

Source Yasser El-Zayyat/Getty

Whatever the cause, the predicament is rarely temporary — thousands have been stateless for more than a decade.

For many Bedoun people, their name is a constant reminder and reflection of their homelessness. Bedoun, a corruption of the word ”Bedouin,” means “without,” and more than 100,000 of them in Kuwait are living without a nationality, despite the fact they comprise nearly 10 percent of the country’s population.


“Being stateless is like having your life stopped before it even starts,” says Mohamed Albadry Alenezi, a Bedoun from Kuwait, who lived without a nationality for 40 years. “Nobody deserves that.” 


Number of people in millions around the globe who are without a nationality — even though Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to one.

Nearly 12 million people around the globe are without a nationality  And while it may not seem like such a massive burden, living without a nationality means no citizenship, no protections and no legality. Stateless people can’t even enjoy simple things like driving legally or accessing health care because they lack the proper paperwork.

Other examples of affected communities include Palestinians, nearly 4 million of whom technically have no citizenship; 90,000 Sahrawi, inhabitants of Western Sahara, living as refugees in Algeria; Kurds living in Syria; Nubians in Kenya; 22,000 Roma in the Balkans and 15,000 more living illegally in Italy; as well as the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. And there are many more.

Defining statelessness: Defined by the 1954 U.N. Convention as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law,” but few of the signatories have mechanisms in place to help stateless people establish nationalities.

The U.N. has been pushing in recent years for countries to adopt the mechanisms needed to aid their stateless, and thanks to the global push, a number of states are beginning to address the issue.

A large group of people in colorful clothing in a crowded room

Overpopulation and population density are two primary problems in the refugee camps. 

So far Asia has made the most significant progress. In 2006, Iraq gave nationality to more than 100,000 Feili Kurds and, a year later, Bangladesh recognized 300,000 Biharis, the Urdu-speaking minority, as citizens. Kyrgyzstan also passed a new citizenship law in 2009, giving nationality to 50,000 former citizens of the USSR.

The world needs the collaboration of developed countries to solve the problem on a bigger scale, particularly with asylum seekers who often fall through the cracks and end up in legal limbo for years. To this end, the U.K. approved a groundbreaking law last year, giving stateless migrants a path to citizenship by allowing them the right to remain in the U.K. and, if they wish, eventually to naturalize.

The positive momentum, coupled with the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention, has prompted the U.N. Refugee Agency to launch a global campaign to eradicate statelessness once and for all — a goal that should strike home with everyone.

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