The trauma of statelessness in our time

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There are more than 10 million stateless people in the world today. They are not necessarily refugees, nor are they migrants, and they may be living in the country of their birth, but they are not recognised as a citizen anywhere.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jun 28, 2018

It touches a nerve for Jewish people, as “even before the Holocaust, Jews in Germany lost their crucial right to claim German citizenship as a result of the passing of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. They were strangers in their own country”, said Tali Nates, the Director of the Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

International Refugee Day on 20 June commemorates the anniversary of the Geneva Convention of 1951. In this agreement, 145 states agreed that they were obliged by law to protect displaced people, and that refugees should not be returned to a country where their life was threatened.

Although the rights of those displaced are protected on paper, millions are denied their rights at this very moment. They may not be refugees, but their plight of statelessness is just as desperate.

“People often believe that if you protect stateless people, you’re opening your doors to a flood of refugees, people who will take your jobs, and make your society unsafe,” said Graham Robert Pote, part of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), a non-profit organisation active in southern Africa since 2002. It focuses on political education, critical thinking, research and dialogue in the search for participatory, inclusive, and peaceful democracy. “The truth is that people who are living alongside you right now could be stateless, and you would never know.”

Together with representation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the RLS held an outreach event titled “Ending Statelessness” at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre on 13 June. The event was aimed at raising awareness about statelessness and available solutions, and included presentations about the legal, political, and social implications of the issue.

“This issue stems from how recent a construct national identity and borders in societal devolvement really are,” Pote said. “If you think back to Imperial Europe, a Prussian’s idea of being Prussian was different to today’s German thinking of himself as German. In those times, people could move to different areas and reside where they chose far more easily.

“People are naturally migratory. Today, we suddenly have borders and nation states, and both are concepts which conflict with natural human behaviour. This causes the statelessness problem.”

Pote explains further: “Refugees and stateless people were both dealt with at the end of World War II, but because refugees were more pressing, they were the priority. Citizenship didn’t receive as much attention as refugees internationally, but this is not to say it wasn’t an issue. There were thousands of refugees from Europe whose countries changed names or didn’t exist anymore. They were first refugees, and then became stateless, which are two different things.”

This issue persists today, Pote said. “The UN developed protocols for both issues, and extended its policies to how people should be treated, and what countries should do for them. The convention on refugees came first, and statelessness followed. The real problem is getting countries to adhere to them. South Africa is a signatory to the conventions, but laws and practices are not adhered to. This is partly because of migration, which politicians don’t like. They believe that if you protect stateless people, you will be flooded by refugees. Evidence shows that this is not the case.”

He went on to cite an example in our own country. “A Cuban couple lives and works in Cape Town on a work permit. A child is born to them here, and neither Cuba nor South Africa will recognise it automatically as a citizen. Effectively, this couple has a stateless child. If they leave, they are unable to take the child with them. The child cannot matriculate, cannot go to university, all because it has no ID number. Such people are living with us, but in a parallel state of existence. They are not getting the basic conveniences that come with having an ID.”

The foundation for which he works is committed to working with Parliament, groups like the UN, and individuals in academia to push for change at ground level in South Africa to change the existence of stateless people. “Short of suing the government,” he said, “this Cuban couple has no recourse. They cannot visit home affairs and ask for a form they can fill out and submit. It doesn’t exist. We need to make a change in the law on the ground and implement practical changes. If we do, our fellow African countries will follow suit, and help address this problem.”

Any person can help, he stresses. “We need to talk about it, understand it, and raise awareness. So many people don’t. People just assume that being stateless is about being a refugee, but it’s beyond that. People in our society have no means to access the basic rights that come with having nationality and citizenship.”

Nates agrees. “Although we are not an advocacy group,” she said, “we work closely with non-governmental organisations and the UN to eradicate issues of refugees and statelessness in our time.

“The issue of genocide is unquestionably connected to xenophobia, homophobia, refugees, and statelessness. They are all interrelated. The issues of 70 years ago are still in existence today, and we need to address them if the future is to be different.”


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