About the Authors: Samuel M. Witten serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration and David J. Kramer serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Fifteen-year-old Meesu was born in Thailand, and grew up there, but she is not a Thai citizen. Like some members of hill tribes, she is not a citizen of any country. Without citizenship, she faced travel and work restrictions in Thailand and was trafficked to Malaysia to be a sex worker. When Malaysian police busted the prostitution ring, they could not send Meesu home because she was not Thai. She languished in jail for months.
Meesu's case is sadly not unique. She is one of the world's many stateless people. The United Nations estimates that worldwide there are up to 15 million people who are unable to exercise their "right to nationality," the human right that underpins the relationship between individuals and governments.
Stateless people often say their very existence is ignored. Philosopher Hannah Arendt, who became stateless when she fled Nazi Germany and later acquired U.S. citizenship, described the right to nationality as the right to have rights, and wrote: "The loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever has been the calamity which has befallen ever-increasing numbers of people."
It was the surge in the number of stateless around World War II that led the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include Article 15, which states that "Everyone has the right to a nationality" and should not be deprived arbitrarily of his or her nationality. Still, millions of people -- such as the Bidoon in Kuwait and the Rohingya in Burma (the young woman in the photo, above, belongs to the Rohingya ethnic group and lives along the Bangladesh-Burma border) -- remain stateless, and as a result, suffer from discrimination in access to education, employment, health care, marriage and birth registration, property rights and other abuses.
Although the problem of statelessness persists, international attention to it has drifted to the margins in recent decades. Data on statelessness is scant and seldom highlighted. We do not know, for example, whether the global number of stateless people is increasing or decreasing over time. Issues of citizenship and nationality are politically delicate and often considered sovereign matters. In some cases, governments lack the capacity to officially recognize and document all their citizens; and in other cases, statelessness legally or effectively results from systematic discrimination or gaps in citizenship laws and procedures. In the most egregious cases, governments have denationalized their citizens for political reasons.
In an effort to increase awareness about the existence of stateless people and the problems they face, the U.S. Department of State has begun to include a section on statelessness in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. This change is part of our effort to elevate the issue on the world human rights agenda. Published last month, the reports describe the scope of the problem in 50 countries in all regions of the world.
In addition to these country reports, the Department of State is increasing its support for stateless populations through diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. American diplomats press foreign governments to prevent and resolve situations of statelessness within their territory. We have advocated publicly for the protection of stateless persons in Congress and around the UN General Assembly.
The United States is the single largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mandate includes the protection of stateless people. Last fiscal year, we provided over $363 million to UNHCR, including contributions to the agency's core budget that supported protection and assistance programs for stateless populations. We also provided $2.5 million in targeted funding to address statelessness in 2007. For example, the Department contributed $689,000 to a UNHCR program to construct or rehabilitate 10 schools and to issue temporary ID cards for 150,000 stateless Rohingya in Burma's Northern Rakhine State, which improved their access to health care and other services.
Solutions for stateless people require government action. Especially where stateless persons lack access to naturalization, and where discrimination embedded in nationality laws results in significant stateless populations, governments must rectify their laws and policies. Universal birth registration is another important step in preventing statelessness from occurring. We urge other governments and non-governmental organizations to step up their efforts on this issue.
As for Meesu, the fifteen year old trafficking victim and citizen of nowhere, she was eventually sent back to Thailand. After months of negotiation, the Thai government agreed to consider accepting, on a case by case basis, stateless people who could prove previous residence in the country. Until we all make a broader effort to reduce statelessness, however, millions of individuals will continue to be deprived of the "right to have rights."