The poverty of stateless people; how do we bridge the gap between need and development assistance?

By Jason Tucker

About a year ago I set out to look at how we can better incorporate the needs of stateless people in the development sector. This was driven by my own and others research, which began to show that these greatly under researched populations have largely been marginalised from the provision of development assistance, despite their need.

Statelessness is a fascinating and hugely worrying phenomenon. It describes people who are not considered to be citizens of any country in the world. This issue, however, is for the most part unheard of, or misunderstood, in the development field. This is troubling due to the dire suffering being stateless causes and there being a similar number of stateless persons as refugees. When people have heard of stateless people they often confuse them with refugees, or believe it refers to a stateless nation of people – such as the Kurds. Yet statelessness is a specific issue, and comparing the stateless to refugees greatly underestimates the impact of a lack of citizenship for these people.

Their situation is caused by their specific legal situation, a situation that deserves to be more broadly appreciated and challenged. Statelessness, as defined under international law, is very much a legal issue. It is often the consequence of either implicit or explicit exclusion from a nation-state of persons not considered to fall within the narrative of the nation. This by itself does not lead to statelessness, it is only when no other state in the world claims these excluded people as their citizens that we encounter a significant problem. Stateless people are not considered to be citizens of any country in the world. While statelessness stems from a legal issue, its impacts are devastating on nearly every aspect of the lives of those it affects. This is no niche issue, current estimates place the number of stateless people at seventeen million – considered another way the population of Niger or the Netherlands.

So who are these stateless populations, and where can they be found? Statelessness is a legal issue that at its most basic level affects the individual, yet significant and well know groups do exist. These include 5 million stateless Palestinians, one million stateless Rohingya inside Myanmar and the same number having fled aboard, 300,000 stateless Hill tribes in Thailand, 120,000 Bidoon of Kuwait, 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent and 600,000 stateless persons within Europe. With the process of securing a stateless person citizenship often being a protracted and with no guarantees of success, how do we tackle the poverty and human insecurity that many of the stateless suffer from despite their statelessness? Unfortunately due to the nature of statelessness these people often fall through the gaps of state and development assistance, leaving them in a particularly vulnerable position and providing us with a significant challenge.

When introducing the concept of statelessness one of the first questions inevitably asked is ‘why does it matter?’. Well it matters because the function of citizenship means that being stateless can be a significant barrier to the attainment of other human rights. Securing education, healthcare, access to the formal labour market, recourse to justice and access to financial services are all significantly complicated by a person being stateless. How can we work towards poverty reduction if 17 million of the world’s people, who due to their lack of citizenship anywhere, have no access to basic services? Populations who face socio-political and legal discrimination and exploitation and have no ability to travel (even between villages in some cases) or reside legally anywhere? How can we even measure our successes and failures to meet the needs of the world’s poorest without considering a population the size of Niger? At a more practical level in cases of disaster relief how do we ensure we are reaching everyone? The majority of the countries most affected by the 2004 Tsunami have large stateless populations. Were their needs met directly following the disaster, and has post disaster reconstruction and development included them?

This is why the development (and humanitarian, though not the focus of this research) sectors needs to consider the stateless in their work. However, mainstreaming the stateless is by no means a simple task. There are two paths to achieve this, stateless specific or stateless sensitive policies. The stateless specific approach (explicit inclusion of the stateless in development policy of major donors) hits some resistance as these populations are often persecuted or discriminated against by governments – with the rendering of them stateless a manifestation of this. Further to this, devising broad stateless specific policies is not an easy task if we consider the diverse causes and consequences of how a person becomes stateless and the geographical spread of these populations. Yet, the advocacy for the mainstreaming of the stateless in the sector should continue, and to do so I have chosen the second path – stateless sensitive policies.

The approach I have been working on is ‘stateless sensitive’ development policies and initiatives. By ‘stateless sensitive’ I do not mean policies targeted specifically at the stateless. Instead knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the situation of the stateless would facilitate development actors and agencies to adopt policies, and in turn practices, that do not exclude those stateless who are in need – being the vast majority – when implementing development initiatives for the local non stateless population. It is through this sensitivity to, rather than the specific targeting of the stateless, that many of the barriers to providing assistance could be overcome.

There are examples of this stateless sensitivity in practice, and I am currently working on selecting the best case studies to draw on good practice examples. Microfinance, direct payments, vocational training, education and healthcare projects in a variety of countries have all been identified as fulfilling stateless sensitive criteria. While these are few and far between, considering the poverty faced by the majority of the stateless, their close proximity to other poor populations receiving assistance and their sheer numbers, it provides a glimmer of hope that such an approach could have tractability.

As I work through the complexities of ensuring that I work on the most appropriate case studies upon which to base my advocacy for these policies, one thing remains at the back of my mind, reducing the suffering of the stateless. We have to ensure that our work in the development sector fully incorporates these marginalised, hidden and neglected populations who can be found across the globe. Research, dialogue and practical solutions to improve their lives, despite their statelessness, need to be found whether this involves innovative approaches or drawing on current good practices.

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