Statelessness: Europe’s Forgotten Human Rights Issue

Author: Aleksejs Ivashuk
Date: 21. June 2023

“While the games were being held at Olympia, an old man was desirous of seeing them, but could find no seat. As he went to place after place, he met with insults and jeers, and nobody made room for him. But when he came opposite the Spartans, all the boys and many of the men arose and yielded their places. Whereupon the assembled multitude of Greeks expressed their approbation of the custom by applause, and commended the action beyond measure; but old man, shaking his head with tears in his eyes, said, ‘Alas for the evil days! Because all the Greeks know what is right and fair, but the Spartans alone practise it.’” – Plutarch, Moralia

I am a stateless European. My family and I were among more than 700,000 people in Latvia that were denied access to nationality when the country became independent, contrary to political assurances that were made before the independence. I have strong roots in the country, being born there to parents who grew up there. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, came to Latvia when she was young, to start a new life. She came from just across the border, invited by my granduncle that lived in Latvia. The country is our home where, deprived of nationality, we do not feel welcome.

Today, there are more than half a million stateless people in Europe, mostly minorities in the Baltics, Roma, stateless refugees and asylum seekers, and children of migrant parents. Without a right to have rights (i.e., nationality), we lack access to basic human rights, such as freedom of movement, democratic participation and political representation, equal economic opportunities, minority rights, privacy and many other rights. By the very nature of our circumstance, we have no protectorate state that can put our interests on any agenda. Coupled with the fact that states tend to have internal factions with anti-migrant and xenophobic attitudes, it is common for stateless people to be stuck in an endless limbo, unable to resolve their statelessness. All this, along with other factors such as state obstruction of the topic––particularly by those states that generate mass statelessness––helps explain why it is unlikely that you heard of us or heard our voices.

Statelessness in Europe is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1940s, Nazi Germany generated mass statelessness via its denationalisation laws. It is what allowed for that regime to go after its minorities so easily and so viciously. The regime committed its crimes against humanity legally, under the auspices of domestic laws, politicians, and courts. That is a persistent problem, when those with far-right and exclusionary views seize the domestic law. No state in the world is secure from this ailment. And, as has been shown with the Nazi regime, democracy not only fails to prevent this ailment, but sometimes even facilitates its advent. However, that is not an argument against democracy as much as an argument for stronger international community and international law.

The United Nations and international law are instruments that were created to bring about a more progressive direction for the international community, wherein states would not find it easy to commit egregious violations. The harsh lessons from the two World Wars were supposed to reinforce that direction. Yet, seventy-five years after the end of WWII, we are still experiencing the same problems. Mass statelessness is a good example of the failure of the international community to progress in human rights. Seventy-five years later, we still have as much statelessness, if not more, despite the passing of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness. Conventions that many states have not signed and/or ratified. Statelessness is not going away any time soon, and there are not enough measures in place to prevent it from happening in any corner of the world. Indeed, globally the number of children born stateless (up to 70,000 annually) exceeds the number of stateless people resolving their statelessness.

In practice, beyond the pieces of paper and abstract advocacy talks, the stateless remain as an enigma, treated with little attention, even by international organisations that are supposed to work on the issue. We must understand the realities under which international organisations like the UN function. These organisations are funded by state actors and, particularly at higher levels, are staffed by state representatives whose primary role is to look after their state’s interests. Here lies the heavy disadvantage for the stateless people: topics like statelessness require an emphasis on matters of principle rather than interest. Europe and the European Union, regrettably, are no different in being willing to trump the former with the latter. The region, despite priding itself on human rights, has shown a willingness to turn a blind eye on its own human rights issue in statelessness. Very few Europeans even know of the problem’s existence. In behaving so, unwilling to face the problem in its own backyard, Europeans eschew collective responsibility and undermine the core values of democracy, minority rights, equality, freedom and justice, setting a dangerous and nihilistic example for the rest of the world.

As it stands today, states have absolute control and monopoly over matters of nationality and who “belongs.” Accordingly, states can still very easily create mass statelessness. Just this last decade, mass statelessness in places like the Dominican Republic, India, and Bahrain, show that the trend continues unabated. Having absolute power (and absolute power corrupts absolutely), it does not take much for any state to deprive any of its members the right to have rights. It can come in the form of political repression or other such punitive measures, but most often in comes in the form of abuse of already vulnerable minorities. Almost all of us stateless people became stateless not because of what we did, but because of who we are––in our ethnicity, race, religion, or even sex. Twenty-four countries in the world still do not allow women to pass on their nationality. The recipe for statelessness is still rife and cooking.

History repeats itself time and time again, and we are yet to prove that human nature is becoming less cruel. As realists in IR stress as their fundamental point, the state actors, even those that pay lip service to values of tolerance and inclusion, are helpless in their fixation on looking after perceived interests rather than doing what is right. Ironically, in the long-term they end up betraying both.

Collective memory loss is part of the problem. Case in point, every European knows about the Nazi Germany abuses against its minorities, but few know or remember how these abuses were made possible. That lesson has been lost. We must bring back these lessons to do better for our aspiration for universal human rights in Europe and worldwide. It is quintessential to establish and follow good examples. A good start would be to stop treating stateless as objects of discussion, to start inviting us and our communities for a dialogue at every meaningful stage on statelessness. Stateless voices and perspectives have been left out of the topic for too long. The stateless have a crucial role to play in the field, not least in helping improve the line of work of civil society and international organisations. The missing piece of the puzzle for resolving statelessness is in the hands of stateless people themselves. 

At the end of the day, statelessness is a highly resolvable issue that, primarily, requires a political will to do the right thing. Europe can set an example. The alternative is failure with values that we, as Europeans, preach so much about.

Aleksejs Ivashuk is the founder of Apatride Network, a coalition of stateless-led organisations and stateless individuals working to address statelessness in the EU. He is also an associate member of the European Network on Statelessness, Co-lead of Global Movement to End Statelessness, and he serves on UNHCR’s Advisory Board of Organisations led by the stateless and displaced.