The right paperwork can save lives among the world’s stateless people.
After a record turnout of nearly 60 million Americans marched through voting booths this primary season, poll watchers are expecting U.S. citizens to vote in historic numbers next month, determining in classic democratic fashion (assuming the Supreme Court is not asked to intervene) who will lead the United States over the next four years.
Those same citizens are going to pay taxes over those four years. They will collect Social Security and apply for passports. Their children will attend state-funded schools, visit state-funded medical facilities, and benefit from other state-funded social services.
They are going to do all this and more because they possess the certainty of citizenship and the liberty and pursuit of happiness it confers, something denied an estimated 15 million people worldwide who endure in a little-acknowledged or appreciated legal and political limbo, the global nation of the stateless.
People who are not recognized as citizens of any state may be unable to go to school, work legally, own property, get married, or travel. They often can’t get treated at a hospital, open a bank account, or receive a pension. They may be unable to turn to police when victimized or seek help when unemployed, homeless, or hungry. All because legally they do not exist.
In an era when high-tech paper trails seem inescapable, it’s hard to imagine how statelessness can persist. But many people are still born into societies with limited bureaucracies that don’t properly register births or migrant cultures that do not esteem borders. Civil war and ethnic conflict can leave national boundaries and identities in disarray. The breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union generated Europe’s largest numbers of stateless people. The current conflict in Georgia at least partly revolves around the statelessness of its ethnic minorities.
Perhaps history’s best known stateless people have been Europe’s Roma populations, often unwelcome and unacknowledged even within the borders of their birth. As they learned painfully during the fascist reign in Europe, their statelessness makes them exquisitely vulnerable.
In Thailand, unaccompanied children cross the border from Burma. They arrive without documentation of any sort. The ones lucky enough not to be picked up by sex traffickers or placed into the loving care of the modern equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse are often unable to tell Thai authorities or social workers who their parents are or where they came from. Thailand is not in the habit of accepting such migrants as its own citizens.
The United States has its own stateless population: young adults brought into the country by their parents as children without documentation. Not culturally members of their “home” nations, they’ve grown up as Americans in every way except legally. By college age such noncitizens find their lives at an awkward crossroad, unable to continue in pursuit of the American dream—college, career, family—unable to turn back to a society they may only dimly remember.
The United Nations has done much for stateless peo- ple by encouraging minimum standards of birth registration and census taking that creates the paper documentation that literally can save lives. Still, it’s fair to say that most U.S. citizens and citizens of other economically advanced nations of the world have paid little attention to this problem.
We could begin by acknowledging the stateless among us and join the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in urging a comprehensive immigration reform package through Congress. Current U.S. legislative proposals explicitly address the problem of undocumented minors coming of age in America. Other U.S. legislation has been introduced requiring detailed reports on the problem of statelessness and the beginning of a global plan of action to respond.
Almost a century after President Woodrow Wilson spoke of the self-determination of all people, it’s time finally to make that democratic promise a reality. Everyone deserves to have a state that they can call home.