Reflecting on Citizenship – The personal Proximity to Statelessness

When being asked to introduce oneself, people draw on key facets of their identity such as age, gender, ethnicity or nationality. During my travels, for example, I would introduce myself as 23 year old traveler from Germany. Although I am not very patriotic about my citizenship, it was always something I would mention first when introducing myself, and it seemed natural to me that everyone else I met along my journey would have a nationality as part of his identity as well.  Yet, when visiting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Myanmar, I realized that citizenship is a privilege that millions of people do not have.

Citizenship in Myanmar, a country that just recently transferred from military rule to democracy, is based on a stratified system in which the type of citizenship depends on an individual’s ancestry that either belongs to an indigenous race or not. It classifies people into different categories titling them full citizens if they prove evidence that proves they descent from family members having resided in Myanmar before 1823 (or 1948 in order to be titled as associate citizen), but denies access to other ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya. Thus, Burmese citizenship is solely based on ancestry up until today, subjecting minorities to severe restriction in movement and legal rights. In fact, this restriction is so severe and institutionalized, that Burmese minorities are often locked up in what Nicholas Kristof calls modern concentration camps.

Yet, one might think that statelessness is an issue that only occurred in developing countries, just like I had falsely assumed. According to the UN refugee agency, however, an estimated 680,000 people in Europe alone were still stateless by the end of 2013. This is due to, for example, the emergence of new states such as seen during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had left around 350,000 people without citizenship in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. To further prove that this is not an issue of only developing countries, imagine the following scenario: A child is born in the Netherlands to a Danish father and Austrian mother, who are not married to each other. The family moves to England when the child is two years old. Which citizenship would the child be able to acquire? Up until last year, the answer would have been none.

According to the Danish law, which had only changed last year, only mothers (or fathers married to their partner) can pass on citizenship. Similarly, Austria did not permit unmarried mothers to pass on citizenship until laws changed this regulation. Moreover, in order to acquire Dutch or British citizenship the child would have needed to live in the Netherlands for a minimum of five years and would leave the child stateless in the meantime. This scenario may seem rather unordinary, but in a world in which people are increasingly migrating to other countries for work or personal reasons, it seems outrageous that statelessness even within Europe was possible for so long.

Unlike the U.S. nationality principle jus soli, in which citizenship is acquired by birth in a certain territory, most European countries have laws that tie the acquisition of citizenship to an individual’s descent, called jus sanguinis.  Consequently, a child’s nationality is tied to the one of his parents. While the sexist structures have been largely eliminated within Europe, over 27 countries like Qatar strongly hold onto them, even if that results in statelessness for the child.

Upon receiving all these information, I started to wonder how the statelessness is reflected in the everyday life of a person, as the conscious use of it is seldom. Yet, the lack thereof has drastic consequences: It can entail having no document to identify yourself, not being able to travel across borders and that a person may neither be able to work nor to enroll at a school. Moreover, in worst cases like the Rohingya in Myanmar, you are confined to certain areas and deprived of basic rights such as legal rights or medical aid.

In the recent light of the Syrian refugee crisis, the topic of citizenship and statelessness gains importance drastically. As hundreds of thousands flee Syria in light of bombings and terrorism, some are not able to take more than a backpack full of clothes, while others have lost everything in the war. However, this poses a difficulty – in order to apply for asylum, governments demand proper identification. Moreover, many refugees who fled to Europe were pregnant women, who gave birth to their child abroad. Yet, with Syria’s law of jus sanguinis, children can only obtain Syrian citizenship through their father’s descent, which can only be claimed by returning home to Syria. But with the country being in its fifth year of war and having killed hundreds of thousands civilians (including the fathers who are needed to obtain citizenship), the chances of being able to return home remain almost non-existent. Thus, Europe is heading towards creating new stateless individuals unless a solution, even if temporary, can be found.

I used to see citizenship as nothing more than a plastic ID card or a piece of paper that would grant me access to places or things like international travel without realizing the worth of it. Only until I witnessed how the lack of citizenship, the lack of a piece of paper or plastic card, could impact me, I started realizing that my entire life including being able to travel, go to school and work was fundamentally based on my citizenship.

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