The Problem of Statelessness

Mike Koetting     November 14, 2019

Stateless Words

If one takes a step back from day to day life, it’s easy to see this point of view. The very idea of “country” is an abstract notion that we impose on geography.

Of course, it is a critically important notion in the way we organize our lives. For reasons both conceptual and practical, there are few people living in the developed world who don’t have a well-defined notion of county. It is a set of legal relationships that impact virtually every aspect of our lives, from how our birth is recorded, to how much money we get to live on in our old age, and everything In between, including education, military service, and how our economic relationships are developed.

There is one aspect of country that has particularly come to the fore recently. Country defines where you can go, where you can’t go, and even if you can go at all. Article 13 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 recognized mobility as an essential human right and asserts that citizens have the right to travel within a state and the right to leave and return to their country. However, there’s a lot that does not address.

What happens when a person is in a country where he or she is not a citizen? In that case, the legal right to mobility is unclear—as indeed is any ability to participate in the surrounding society. This is a huge problem for a large number of people who are marooned in countries where they do not have the legal status of citizen. They are stateless and, as such, they have no rights granted by citizenship. Their existence there, and all the elements of their lives, are at the pleasure of the host state, perhaps roughly constrained by some notions of human rights—but in that case only to the extent the international community is willing to take steps to enforce those rights.

What got me thinking about this was an article in the Washington Post describing the situation of the Rohingya. Like most Americans, I had not thought about them recently. Two years ago, 750,000 fled northern Myanmar in the face of what is widely-acknowledged as a campaign of ethnic-cleansing. Now they are stuck in truly awful camps in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is unwilling to grant them citizenship—it is awash in its own problems—so they are confined to the camps with no real prospects.


Myanmar, with a Cheshire cat grin, says it would be happy to have the Rohingya back, but they don’t seem to want to come. Myanmar has never admitted their role in the cleansing, has leveled most the villages from which the Rohingya fled, and has made it clear it does not consider them citizens of Myanmar and therefore offers no guarantee of rights. As one of the Rohingya leaders in a camp said: “I miss my home a lot. But I don’t want to go back to a place where my family could be killed.”

The Rohingya are not the only ones with a problem of statelessness. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates the number of people who are stateless at more than 10 million, but also suggests that is an undercount, since the last count did not fully take into account the unraveling of civil government in Syria or Venezuela. It is also not clear how they counted the 28 millions Kurds in various countries where their status is contested or the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees who are functionally stateless. Nor is it clear how they are thinking about undocumented in the U.S., who might well be considered stateless.

Moreover, recent developments in India are particularly ominous where 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam have been left off a register of citizens, stoking concerns that many could become stateless. There also many problems in Africa –where the states themselves were largely constructs imposed by outsiders with limited regard for internal cohesion.

It’s not clear what to do about this problem. UNHCR has set a goal for abolishing statelessness by 2024. Like many UN goals, the worthiness of the aim is not well matched to the means to achieve it. Some places have taken concrete steps. Thailand, for instance, is close to granting citizenship to 500,000 migrating hill people along its borders. Uganda has made real strides in finding ways to support refugees and Jordan has been figuring out what to do with 60 successive years of refugees from all over the region. Tanzania, Niger, Kenya, and Lebanon are all places that have been figuring out ways to make progress, sometimes with little support from the international community. Success in this hard work requires support for the local community not just the refugees. Social support, mental health services, and finding ways for people to have productive opportunities to work or volunteer are important. The latter will typically require sorting out some options on temporary work permits for refugees; working on ways to improve job markets across a whole area; and lots of advocacy with both host and “home” governments.

But some cases are going to be particular resistant to progress. Most of these situations have evolved out of a long standing, ethnic strife, often combined with resource shortages or other significant stresses in the area—violence or environmental disasters being the most frequent.

The case of the Rohingya is illustrative. Returning them to Myanmar is not likely to work as long as Myanmar does not consider them legitimate citizens of the country. Even granting the Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar might not solve the problem absent a real commitment to integrate these people into the social fabric of the country, something for which there is no good prospect.

Maybe there is some way to get Bangladesh to absorb the Rohingya—but Bangladesh doesn’t have the resources now, and, I am not sure there is any amount of aid that would make this work. There is also the unsettling reality that rising sea levels are making Bangladesh “ground zero” for the adverse effects of climate change.

So what happens? I assume what is happening how. The Rohingya are mired in these camps. Some will seep out in the larger world, some will die, and some will just be there indefinitely—like some of the Palestinian refugee camps. It is not a pretty picture.


All this illustrates how deeply problematic the issue of statelessness is. There is the temptation to shrug and say that 10 or even 20 million people in the scheme of a world-population of 7.7 billion is not a big deal arithmetically. So we could just write off the stateless. But, even setting aside the moral issues, as we keep finding in the Middle East, when we do that, it can come back to bite us.

Actually resolving the problems of the stateless will require engagement of the developed countries. They will have to provide a mixture of carrots and sticks that are neither cheap nor easy. I am not optimistic. Certainly in the current political context, America can be counted on to avoid any leadership commitment. Perhaps China will step into the void, but that’s a thin reed.

I think for most of the stateless, the best they can hope for is to keep surviving from day-to-day until the rest of the world decides it cares about these people at the margin. It will probably happen here and there—and I believe we have some obligation to help in those places–but for most of these people it will be a very long wait.


My last post, “Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump”, included a link to the wrong article. The correct link to the referenced article by David Leonhardt is It’s not an encouraging article, but is very much worth a look. Sorry for my error.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Statelessness”

  1. The entire notions of “state” and “citizenship” are merely legal constructs and hence (IMO) are based only on opinion and not fact. They are merely ways to [sorta] formalize hatred into something viewed as defensible.

    Don’t believe that? Then look at the U.S.’s current national or international spectrum and show how it’s fact-based. Neither is.


  2. You’re looking at the issue through the wrong end of the microscope. Yes, states are “merely” legal constructs. But those constructs enable people to come together to do things that individuals can’t do on their own, specifically, provide for their communal security. It can be perverted by hatred. Many of the cases of statelessness are caused by exactly that. But people need not choose hatred. It is by no means inherent in the nature of the state. But it can creep in in the absence of a shared sense of destiny.


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