Where do #IBELONG?

 ‘Even though now I have Italian nationality, being stateless stays inside you – like a permanent mark.’ Leli, 19, formerly stateless person

While you and I do not think about our nationality on a daily basis, for stateless persons, the lack of a nationality is an ever-present struggle.

When I participated in the One Young World (OYW) Summit 2013, I was the only representative of Ukraine among 1300 people from 190 countries. This was an enormous responsibility, I felt like an athlete representing my country at the Olympics and to be fair, OYW is ‘the Olympics’ for the young leaders of today. Such events make me think more than ever about my belonging and my origins. However, being part of the OYW Summit and its global community of ambassadors, each of whom represents his or her own country, also made me realize that stateless persons, even if they feel as nationals of the country where they were born or lived all their lives, would not have the opportunity to represent ‘their’ country, simply because they lack the nationality of that country. They would not be able to proudly bear the flag of the country they feel they belong to during the Flag Bearing Ceremony, because their country does not recognize them as nationals.

Statelessness is a global anomaly that according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) affects more than 10 million people in the world. Moreover, UNHCR estimates that somewhere in the world a child is born stateless every 10 minutes. In countries hosting the 20 largest stateless populations, at least 70,000 stateless children are born each year. What strikes me the most about statelessness is how widespread it is around the world and how invisible and unknown it is to so many of us. Out of dozens of friends whom I have spoken to about statelessness, very few had heard or read about it previously. The first question I get when I tell people that I work on statelessness is why statelessness occurs in the first place.  Statelessness has numerous causes. States may simply cease to exist (for example, as with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) and individuals fail to acquire citizenship of the successor states. Statelessness can also be caused by conflict between nationality laws of different countries. In addition, administrative and practical causes (for instance, when individuals are unable to undertake the necessary procedural steps to acquire a nationality) and discrimination can cause statelessness, including gender discrimination. There are still 27 countries in the world today where women cannot pass on their nationality to their children in the same way as men.

Statelessness limits your life to the extent that you feel invisible. It can be an insurmountable obstacle to opening a bank account, entering university, getting medical treatment, getting married to the person you love, travelling, getting a job etc. This is because all of these acts require proof that you belong. And stateless people simply don’t. If you take a moment and think about it, belonging is probably something you and I have always taken for granted.

In 2014, UNHCR launched its #IBELONG Campaign, the 10 year Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024. The specific theme of the Campaign for 2015 and 2016 is the impact of statelessness on youth and children. In 2015, UNHCR published its report ‘I Am Here, I Belong. The Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness’ (also available in Spanish and French). UNHCR spoke to more than 250 children,young people and their families from 7 different countries, namely Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Georgia, Italy, Jordan, Malaysia and Thailand. Many of the children and young people had never spoken to anyone about what it was like to be stateless. They described themselves as “invisible,” “alien,” living in a shadow,” like a street dog” and “worthless.” No child or young person deserves to feel that way and as UNHCR’s former High Commissioner, António Guterres put it: “In the short time that children get to be children, statelessness can set in stone grave problems that will haunt them throughout their childhoods and sentence them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair. If our hopes for the future generation are to be realized, that generation must be a meaningful part of the present. None of our children should be stateless. All children should belong.” I think the message about the current generation of young people being a ‘meaningful part of the present’ echoes the philosophy of One Young World and the impact that today’s youth can have on the world.  

During the summer of 2015, when UNHCR conducted the interviews to gather information for the above mentioned report, I had the fortune to meet with stateless youth in some of the countries. The predominant message from different corners of the world was that all of the stateless young people we spoke to strongly identified themselves with the countries in which they were born and had lived all their lives. Despite the hardships they faced, including lack of possibilities to enter universities, get the job they wanted or travel to see their relatives across the border, most of them saw their future in the countries where we met them, in many cases the only country they had ever known. All of them referred to those countries as ‘home’, as that was where they felt they belong. I could continue explaining in abstract what statelessness is and the hardship it entails, but I would rather share with you some stories of young stateless persons from across the world and the impact that statelessness has had on their lives.

Annick, 13, was left in the care of her grandparents in Côte d’Ivoire when she was very young. After her grandparents died a few years later, she was placed in the care of a family from the same ethnic group. Since her birth was never registered, there was no official proof of her parentage, and there was no one to testify about it. Thus, the authorities consider Annick’s parentage unknown, which means she cannot be considered an Ivorian national and remains stateless. Birth registration is fundamental to the prevention of statelessness. Although birth registration in itself does not generally confer nationality on a child, it is key proof of the link between and individual and a state, as it indicates the child’s place of birth and who his or her parents are). These are key pieces of information necessary to establish which nationality a child can acquire. Birth registration therefore serves to prevent statelessness.

Access to higher education was among the biggest challenges mentioned by the young stateless we spoke to. Despite the fact that all of them had found a way to attend primary school (many only thanks to the goodwill of the teachers), very few had been able to graduate from secondary school and attend a university. “I get pretty good grades,” says Patcharee, 15, a stateless hill-tribe girl in Thailand. “Maybe I am even at the top of the class. But every time there is a scholarship, it is given to someone who has a national ID card.” Her classmate Boon, 16, echoes the sentiment of many others: “It should be the right of every child to study and learn. This is the most important thing.”

Many of those UNHCR spoke to mentioned that they had difficulties in accessing health care due to lack of national identity documents. Pratap, 15, from Malaysia told us that the only thing the hospital workers cared about, when he came, after severely injuring his leg playing football, was his lack of documents: “I felt angry because no one wanted to help me, even when I was clearly in pain. They scrutinized my status even though it was an emergency. Is it my fault that I don’t have a nationality? I was born in this country like any other Malaysian. Why do I have to suffer this way?”

When I met Jirair, 22, in Georgia, he had never had any documents that proved his identity. He is an aspiring Greco-Roman wrestler and dreams of representing Georgia at international competitions: “The doors of the world are closed to me. Everybody left for a tournament and I stayed behind to train here alone. The coaches support me, saying: ‘It is OK, be patient, keep training.’ Everybody leaves and when they come back they are full of new updates. I listen to their stories and inside I am crying. But I still hope to become a good coach for young people, to set a good example. The one thing I need to achieve my dreams is citizenship.” Despite these difficulties, Jirair remained a positive young man who truly believes that his life will soon improve.  And it did. Not long after we met Jirair, he was finally recognized as a stateless person in Georgia. Thanks to that, he had a chance to obtain a travel document for stateless persons and participate in a statelessness commemoration event at the UN Headquarters in New York: “…I received an official travel document. For the first time in my life, I had an identity. Holding this document in my hand and standing in front of you today, it feels like the time when my coach would take my hand and lift it up after I won a competition. Now instead of my coach, you are taking my hand, and I am counting this as a life win for me.” The grant of the statelessness status has also put him on the pathway to acquire a citizenship - he will be able to apply for Georgian citizenship in five years. Meanwhile, after visiting the USA, he started learning English so he could communicate with more people from other countries.

In addition to the above mentioned challenges faced by stateless youth, the psychological scars and humiliation are among the severest impacts statelessness has on their lives. Statelessness simply takes away their time and possibility of being children. Joe, 13, who is stateless in the Dominican Republic, has no other options but to spend his school vacations at the rubbish dump in order to earn something to support his family: “I like going to school. I especially like maths,” says Joe. “When I grow up I want to be a baseball player, but I don’t play baseball this summer.” Unfortunately, dreams and aspirations of such teenagers as Joe might remain only dreams because of their statelessness.

Nedzed, 23, who is stateless in Italy, tries not to let statelessness be in the way of his active social life and desire to become a role model for young persons who ended up stateless like him. He campaigns for stateless people in Italy and believes that change will happen: “Right now, I am always trying to do the best for my community, and also for those who are in the same situation as me, hoping that this will motivate them. I tell them: ‘All right, you don’t have documents, but you can do this and that,’ right? You are not locked in chains, you are a person.”

I hope that the stories of stateless young people around the world will inspire states and activists like many of you, my fellow OYW Ambassadors, to continue to raise awareness about statelessness and UNHCR’s #IBELONG Campaign. You can also support UNHCR’s efforts and sign the open letter today.  By gaining nationality, over 10 million stateless persons across the globe could finally enjoy a sense of belonging in this world. I want to believe that you and I BELONG to a world where everyone has the right to a nationality.

Valeriia Cherednichenko is an OYW Ambassador from Ukraine, she attended the OYW Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2013.  Today, she works as a Consultant on Statelessness in Europe at the Bureau for Europe of the UN Refugee Agency. This blog piece reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of UNHCR or of the United Nations.