The Stateless: Not Everybody Belongs

19:42Ciaran McCormick

One of my favourite films is the lesser known Spielberg piece from 2004, 'The Terminal'. Tom Hanks stars as Viktor, a visitor from the fictional nation Krakozhia. When he arrives at the JFK airport, he discovers that his home country has been unrecognised by the US because it became mired in civil war. The touching film followed his stay in the airport, with no other legal place to go. Having watched this film several years ago, I thought about statelessness for the first time. It is not an easy condition to imagine, since we think of the world in terms of the state to which we belong. Our nationality is a core part of our identity and we derive most of our legal benefits from it. It seems like more than just a legal contract between the state and the citizen though. Having nationality needs a sense of belonging and a kinship with the place as a home. To be stateless violates your dignity as a person in both an emotional and legal way.
It happens in the real world. Indeed, 'The Terminal' is based on the famous case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who had his papers stolen and was forced to stay in a French airport for 18 years.

Recently, there has been a huge debate about whether Edward Snowden counts as a stateless person. In a scenario reminiscent of the film and the Nasseri case, he is believed to be hiding in Moscow's Sheremetyevo international airport. Russia is using the airport as a get-out clause for escaping responsibility for Snowden in their territory. The world is shining a spotlight on his limbo. Many have rejected his claim of statelessness as America has only withheld his passport rather than denying him a place on American soil, even if that place is in the justice system. But wherever he ends up, his sense of belonging to a state will always be undermined. He may choose a future home based on whether it lacks an extradition treaty or has had fractured historical relations with the United States. However, that is not the basis for belonging to a state, even if it gives him the legal rights of a citizen. Julian Assange is a parallel example. Even though he has managed to escape the reach of international justice and extradition into the Ecuadorian embassy, this is not akin to statehood. He is in a stateless condition of asylum, lacking the freedom to live a normal life in a state to which he belongs.

Nonetheless, the good that can come out of these high profile cases is a sharper focus on the genuinely stateless people around the world. We must never get too preoccupied with the individuals that have offended the likes of the USA that we forget these human beings. Whilst I question the emotional statelessness of these indicted individuals, there are those that have legal statelessness as well as an emotional suffering. The UN estimates that there are 12 million stateless people around the world. They lose the legal benefits that we take for granted, indeed many of these benefits give us the dignity of human rights. Education, health, political rights, family life and economic activity are all made an ordeal by the lack of an official citizenship.

The difficulty we have in imagining this condition is getting in the way of preventing human tragedy. It is a standout example of how the way the world is divided into inward-looking states gets in the way of our international human duty to look after our kind. In this case, our kind isn't the people that belong to our nation, but those that belong to the human race. They share the emotional state of being deprived of a state that Snowden or Assange experience. For example, many around the world such as in the United States are detained because they are stateless and do not have the legal rights of residency associated with citizenship. This fits the stateless victims into the same category of outsider as enemies and criminals. It cannot help their plight to be recognised or to raise public consciousness or sympathy for a set of people to be in detention.

One of the many differences between these people and the high profile cases is that they rarely choose to live in such a condition. They may be the product of war, the breakup of states or because of their tribal descent. Our idea of a country is that if you live there, you either belong there or came there illegally from where you belonged. This third possibility is an underlooked human tragedy that twists our political view of the world.

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