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About the Author: Nicole Shepardson serves as a Program Officer in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).
Though born in Vietnam in 1982, Ho Manh Cong's life in his native country was proscribed in many ways by his lack of citizenship status. That is until July of this year, when the government of Vietnam, working together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, committed to end the saga of statelessness this year for more than 2,500 former Cambodian refugees and their descendants, many of whom came to Vietnam in 1972 to escape the Pol Pot regime. Unable to buy homes, receive social and health benefits, or even attend universities, many Vietnamese people of Cambodian descent now have access to citizenship and all the social benefits that this status implies. For Ho Manh Cong, this means he can now -- at the age of 28 -- purchase and register a motorcycle, for the first time in his life.
Most people around the world seldom think twice about showing their identity documents to travel freely, enroll in school, get a job, open a bank account, get married, or register the birth of their children. Yet in all these ways and others, citizenship is a critical part of our daily lives, livelihoods and human dignity. For a stateless person -- someone who is not recognized as a citizen of any country -- these aspects of daily life that we take for granted are a constant challenge.
Efforts to publicize and elevate the importance of statelessness are critical because for many, statelessness seems abstract -- some vague notion caught up in political theory about the relationship between the individual and the state. Few Americans might ever imagine that the problem is so widespread, with considerable stateless populations living in countries such as Burma, the Dominican Republic, Syria, Nepal, Russia, Kuwait, and the Ukraine, as well as for many Palestinians living in the Middle East, and on and on. Most Americans have never met a stateless person, and those of us whose citizenship is secure tend to take it for granted.
Until recently, the issue has been "in the shadows," like stateless people themselves. There is little data on the history of statelessness or population trends. Information on stateless populations has seldom been highlighted. Issues of citizenship and nationality are politically delicate. In the most egregious cases, governments have denationalized their citizens for political reasons; in some cases, governments simply lack the capacity to officially recognize and document their citizens; and in other cases, statelessness results from systematic discrimination or other gaps in citizenship laws and procedures. Whether they are deliberately excluded or simply fall through administrative cracks, stateless persons are often described as "legal ghosts."
This information graphic produced by the Department's Humanitarian Information Unit with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) is the latest in our continuing efforts to create awareness about the global challenge of statelessness. Further information is available in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the PRM-supported Forced Migration Review issue on statelessness, and from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.