There are 12 million stateless people in the world. Who are they?

Without a country to belong to, many of these people lack some of the most fundamental rights.

Statelessness
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  • According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is host to 12 million people who don't officially belong to any state.
  • People can become stateless through a variety of means, including racial discrimination, sexist nationality laws, voluntary choice, or bureaucratic accidents.
  • Who are these millions of stateless individuals? What is life like for them? Can their situation be solved?


You can live in a country for your entire life, but due to some circumstance of your birth or political machinations outside of your control, you can be denied an education, healthcare, employment, legal rights, any kind of identification, and many other things that your peers may have access to. Statelessness may live entirely in the realm of abstract bureaucracy, but it can have some very real and concrete impacts on your life.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that roughly 12 million people across the globe do not belong to any state. Some gave up their statehood willingly, others had it taken away from them by a vindictive government, and others just never had statehood in the first place.

How do people become stateless?

Often, statelessness arises due to the quirks of international law. For instance, many states offer citizenship based on either jus soli — where individuals born in a given nation acquire that nationality — jus sanguinis — where citizenship is inherited from one's parents — or some combination of the two. When these systems have cracks, sometimes the result can be statelessness.

For instance, Canada offers citizenship through jus sanguinis, but only for one generation. Rachel Chandler's father had been born in Libya but was a Canadian citizen due to Canadian nationality laws. Chandler was born in China to a Chinese mother, but she was still ineligible for citizenship under Chinese law. As a second-generation, foreign-born Canadian, she was also ineligible for Canadian citizenship, and thus became stateless.

Another major source of statelessness is due to sexism. Twenty-five states also don't permit mothers to pass on their nationality in the same way that fathers can, as is the case in Iran, Qatar, and Kuwait. When the father is stateless himself, unmarried to the mother, or has died, among other reasons, offspring in these countries suddenly find themselves without a nation.

Others renounce their statehood or lose their statehood when their nation dissolves — as was the case for many native Russian Soviet citizens living in Estonia and Latvia, who suddenly became stateless when the Soviet Union dissolved.

The main source of statelessness, however, arises due to states discriminating against a particular group. The Syrian government, for example, stripped hundreds of thousands of Kurds of their statehood in a 1962 census, claiming that the Kurds had immigrated illegally, and sparking considerable international criticism. Today, the Myanmar government is perhaps the biggest contributor to the modern stateless population with their refusal to grant the Rohingya people citizenship. The Rohingya have been present in Myanmar since the 8th century, but the state only offers citizenship to 135 legally recognized ethnic groups, of which the Rohingya do not belong. Instead, Myanmar appears to intend to expel its Rohingya population.

Notable examples of statelessness

Mehran Karimi Nasseri's living quarters in Charles de Gaulle airport. Photo credit: Christophe Calais / Corbis via Getty Images

Albert Einstein had a very interesting political history, bouncing from German to Swiss back to German to U.S. citizenship. However, in between the years in which he was a German and Swiss citizen, Einstein was stateless for five years. Though he was born in the German Kingdom of Württemburg, Einstein renounced his citizenship in order to avoid military service in 1896. Five years later, he would be granted Swiss citizenship.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri was not so lucky. He has been allegedly stateless since 1977, and 18 of those years he spent living in Charles de Gaulle airport. Nasseri claims to have been expelled from Iran, his home country, for protesting the Shah. He decided to move to Britain, but the travel documents that listed him as a refugee — which provided him a legal basis to seek citizenship in Europe — were stolen during a layover in France. Nasseri continued onto Britain regardless and was returned to France by British authorities. French officials intended to deport him but could not; Nasseri had no country of origin to be deported to.

A French court concluded that Nasseri had entered the country legally, but he could not leave the airport. It was only until 2006 that Nasseri left Charles de Gaulle due to an unknown illness requiring his hospitalization. The 2004 film The Terminal used Nasseri's story for inspiration.

Garry Davis voluntarily renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1948, partially due to his brother's death in World War II and his own participation in the war as a B-17 bomber. Davis interpreted Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as allowing him the rights of a world citizen. In his later years, he would start the World Service Authority, a non-profit with the goal of promoting world citizenship and a world government. He also developed world passports, which he allegedly used to gain entry into some countries (though he was detained many times).

Though these examples highlight some of the more whimsical ways one can lose their statehood, most stateless persons suffer a significant amount of abuse because of their lack of statehood. The UNHCR has stated its goal to end statelessness by 2024 by a variety of actions, among them:

  • encouraging countries to change problematic laws (such as those 25 countries with gendered nationality laws),
  • pushing discriminatory states toward reform through international pressure, and
  • improving the process by which states dissolve or separate.

It's a lofty goal, but one can't help but to imagine that the stateless will always be with us.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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