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Seeing like a State-less Person

Tags: prosestateless

For a few years now I've been following the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI). This week I attended their affiliated conference in Malaysia! Despite having this on my radar, I was surprised by a lot of info that I picked up at the conference.

First off, statelessness is when someone, for any number of reasons, cannot claim a passport or citizenship benefits from an active government. Though this is less common in the western hemisphere where many countries have birthright citizenship, it's a global issue that the US DHS is developing policies for ( , via United Stateless).

In Europe, 2–3% of migrants are stateless or have 'unknown' country of origin. Yet this conference had hundreds of professionals and academics. Many fields (migration and asylum, human rights, constitutional law) have overlap with statelessness issues. It's also an issue where a lawyer can have a tangible impact (getting a passport of reversing a ban) which otherwise would continue snowballing (as the child of stateless parents can easily become stateless, too).

It's common to think of someone accidentally being stateless by being born on an airplane or in the middle of a war, but this narrative works to absolve the state. There are ebbs and flows of people who had their citizenship removed by court decisions in the Dominican Republic, Venezuelan emigrants who cannot get documents from a failed state, and mothers who are blocked from passing citizenship to their children. A fascinating part of statelessness is it takes a typically leftist issue (free movement and migration) and must confront the arbitrary violence of the state. These governments are not accidentally unable to register a child for school. It's evident when Myanmar can give minorities an ID for conscription but not for citizenship. The xenophobia, nationalism, patriarchy is embedded in the state. In the last day's sessions about nomadic Bajau Laut (sometimes called Sea Gypsies), there were some sick James Scott name-drops.

When explaining the conference to my network, the general question has been whether these people are "truly" stateless, thinking (especially when it comes to migration) that this person must have a passport waiting somewhere else. The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness has info on de facto statelessness. The thought experiment which I gave was, if someone is the child of post-Soviet refugees, who moved to the US as a baby and has never been to Russia, maybe there is a path where they could collect documents and witness statements, fly to Russia, and face their court system, but they have lived their life in the US, the documentation is not going to be so clean, so what would motivate them to fight the legal battle in Russia and not their current, active home?

Two pieces of optimism:

On the second day, several organizations and stateless people realized their dream by launching the Global Movement Against Statelessness. Having seen an uncomfortable number of "we're starting a new organization" meetings in Haiti, I wondered what this meant about the health of existing NGOs. I now believe this is set up for stateless people to take on some control and functions (including a next conference?) from the traditional NGOs. I would compare it to how Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) exists as its own nonprofit. Hopefully I read this correctly.

During summer 2020, ISI created a special COVID-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund. After my experience working with nonprofits which struggle to adapt, reorganize, and conclude their lines of work, it was encouraging to see them close the program at the end of 2022 and publish a report Together We Did! At a conference session about this, several recipients described the "resourcing" (I think cash?) as vital for being so fast and responsive to changing situations (example: one organization used this as a bridge while they applied for traditional grants). The state also was uncharacteristically open to stateless NGOs when it came to food relief, health info, and vaccinations, making some lasting connections.

There was a notable lack of technical discussion. After a panel about digital ID (describing current cases and privacy fears), there were two comments about blockchain. I would describe one as promoting a project (Apatride Network) and one as conflating the World Bank and Bitcoin wallets. There was also some interest in a mobile app developed in Lebanon, but I haven't found much information on this and whether it is adaptable.