Furio De Angelis is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Canada.
Imagine living in an urban slum and struggling day in, day out with poverty, marginalization and lack of opportunity. This is the unfortunate condition that affects hundreds of millions of persons around the world, citizens of countries who have rights on paper but not in practice.
Now, imagine worse yet: a situation in which a person has rights neither in theory nor in practice – indeed, no right to have rights. This is the situation of a stateless person. It is estimated that globally, 10 million people are in this situation. These people have no citizenship in any country and no right to obtain one.
What does statelessness mean, in practice? The risk of being deprived of the most basic rights normally attached to citizenship, such as documentation, registration at birth, legalization of marriage, inheritance rights, employment rights, access to health care, education and many other basic necessities required for living a normal and productive life.
Statelessness may come about in a variety of ways, almost invariably by no fault of the affected person: state dissolution, legal gaps in citizenship legislation, inaction by state bureaucracy or other circumstance.
To promote a solution to this human-rights problem, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is launching a global campaign to end statelessness within 10 years. The UNHCR, well known for its humanitarian work on behalf of refugees and displaced persons, has also been given an international mandate by the UN General Assembly to tackle this problem. One may think this is an ambitious goal, but the UNHCR has already observed significant positive momentum toward the reduction of statelessness by members of the international community.
In December, 2011, 155 states gathered in Geneva to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and pledged to take action. Since this meeting, 42 states have acceded to one or both of the UN conventions on statelessness (the 1961 convention and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons), or made legislative improvements to their citizenship laws, including abolishing discriminatory provisions that prevent women from passing on nationality to their children.
The new global campaign is intended to bring to the attention of national governments that statelessness is incongruous and anachronistic in a world where citizenship in a nation-state is a fundamental element defining a human life.
What can Canada do to contribute?
Historically, Canada has no experience of statelessness as a result of dramatic political turmoil or state dissolution. However, Canada's first citizenship law in 1947 created the phenomenon of "Lost Canadians," people who did not qualify for citizenship under the new law, and often were unaware of their lack of legal status for a long period of time. Subsequent reforms, including the recently passed Strengthening Canada's Citizenship Act, have closed these gaps. But there are three important actions Canada could take:
Sign the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Canada is not yet party to this international human-rights treaty. Canada is a world leader in the field of human rights, and the world needs Canada to lead by example and accede in order to reinforce the legitimacy of the international legal framework dealing with statelessness.
Establish a statelessness determination procedure. Canada does not have a dedicated legal procedure to determine statelessness or to address the specific problems of stateless persons who have no legal status in Canada. Existing procedures and mechanisms, such as the refugee determination process or the humanitarian and compassion grounds application, do not contain any specific reference to the particular situation of stateless persons, and can be used only if additional legal elements exist, such as individual fear of persecution or danger, or compassionate consideration. In Canada, being statelessness is not in itself a reason to benefit from such recourses and gain access to permanent residency and citizenship.
Support global projects aimed at ending statelessness. UNHCR is operating in many countries to address protracted and emerging situations of statelessness, such as the Dalits of Nepal, the Rohingya of Myanmar, the lost children of Sabah, and Haitians in the Dominican Republic, just to mention a few.
International leadership and good models are what is needed to address the problem of statelessness. Canada is well placed and capable of making a difference, contributing to the goal of ending statelessness in 10 years and improving the lives of millions of neglected and forgotten people around the globe.