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The cost of statelessness

Posted Monday 3 October 2011

Brad BlitzFor governments seized with the importance of upholding human rights, the issue of statelessness raises a number of important concerns. Denial or deprivation of nationality to certain groups of people may foster insecurity and fuel cross-border and inter-ethnic wars – for example in Eastern Congo. Further, recent research has suggested that stateless groups are generally not prioritised in social assistance programs and are further disadvantaged as a result of aid policies which do not succeed in reaching them.

All states, as members of the international community, have to meet certain standards under international law. Often there is a contradiction between government policies that ban refugees from working and the international legal framework.

Stateless people (photo credit: Greg Constantine)Stateless people face innumerable barriers, and wider societal and political challenges are posed by their exclusion. Obstacles include the denial of opportunities to: establish a legal residence; travel; work in the formal economy; send children to school; access basic health services; purchase or own property; vote; hold elected office; and enjoy the protection of a country. Too often the births, marriages, and deaths of stateless people are not certified and, many stateless people lack even basic documentation.

Data collection about refugees has improved but little research has been done on the livelihoods of stateless people. The lack of data on the livelihoods of stateless people is problematic because sound and effective policies require a strong evidential basis. Furthermore, vulnerability does not end with the granting of citizenship.

The links between statelessness, forced migration and humanitarian emergencies are well documented. Pro-active and pre-emptive policies may prevent major emergencies. Stateless people in South East Asia and Central Africa have been the victims of persistent persecution; their exclusion from their home states (eg Burma and Democratic Republic of Congo) and lack of access to protection and other resources has fuelled major refugee crises. In order to prevent future humanitarian crises, it is essential causal factors which may give rise to sudden emergencies.

Statelessness is sustained by poor governance, poverty, corruption, discrimination, and the lack of the rule of law, among other factors. In order to advance shared international development commitments, including the Millennium Development Goals, the US government, UN and development agencies need to have a better understanding of how the above factors interact and influence people's livelihoods.

A small number of states have made measurable progress in helping individuals acquire or regain citizenship. From September 2010 until August 2011, I led a team of researchers on a project funded by the US Department of State (£112,000) which aimed to provide empirical insight into the livelihoods of stateless people. The outcomes of this project will provide important evidence to help the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), other governments, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to protect stateless individuals and advance their social, economic, and personal well-being.

The project sought to examine the gains made by a number of states (Bangladesh, Kenya, Slovenia and Sri Lanka) and gather quantitative data on the livelihoods of stateless and formerly stateless people to illustrate the benefits that citizenship brings and to identify best practices.

Statelessness and its implications are politically sensitive subjects. Conducting empirical research on the topic can therefore prove to be a very challenging experience in the field. To overcome this, the project has employed a sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA) which involves participants in the research process. It is holistic and will look at many strategies that people use to secure their livelihoods and build on these opportunities. The project itself has helped to encourage links and partnerships between individuals and organisations.

The quantitative survey stage of the project was completed in Spring 2011. Results have provided some interesting findings with respect to livelihoods, including lower average income/expenditure levels for individuals who have recently acquired citizenship, explained by levels of access to education. Short term citizens continue to suffer from the disadvantages of limited education.

"Save our culture" banner (photo credit: Greg Constantine)Citizenship also impacts education via parents: those with citizenship tend to educate their children better than those without. Parents' education and citizenship has a different impact on the education outcomes of daughters than sons, with sons appearing to benefit more from parents with education and citizenship than daughters in terms of education. Level of household and individual health is also important in explaining the impact of citizenship on livelihoods. Even when citizenship reforms are introduced and discriminatory nationality laws amended, formerly stateless people endure continued hardships associated with the previous deprivation of nationality rights.

The main findings of this study may be summarised below:

With respect to livelihood outcomes:

a) Average per capita household income/expenditure is higher for those who have had citizenship for many years (or all their lives as in the case of the citizen group in Bangladeshi and Slovenian samples) than those who have more recently acquired citizenship. The results of this study show that statelessness lowers a household's per capita income by 33.7 per cent.

b) In each country the impact of citizenship on income varied in terms of its intensity. In Sri Lanka and Kenya, two poor countries, the percentage by which income was reduced for formerly stateless households (as compared against born citizens) was 11.5 per cent and 24.5 per cent respectively. In Bangladesh and Slovenia, two states where the former stateless groups have been actively excluded from mainstream society it was far greater at 74.5 per cent and 62.5 per cent respectively. (Technical note: Simple averaging of these country level ratios will not yield the previously reported overall four country ratio of 33.7 per cent. This is to do with mathematical properties of average of ratios.)

c) In terms of expenditure, stateless households spent 34 per cent less than citizen households.

d) A key explanation of the observed differences in income/expenditure is education. The data suggests that differential access to education undermines livelihoods, with short term citizens continuing to suffer from the disadvantages of limited education. This was particularly evident in the case of Bangladesh.

e) Levels of household and individual health are also extremely important in explaining the impact of citizenship on livelihoods.

f) On average, stateless and formerly stateless people are 35 per cent less happy than citizens; education and health positively impact levels of happiness as does owning a house or land.

g) Statelessness reduces opportunities for education; the educational attainment of stateless and formerly stateless people is markedly lower than for citizens, in spite of the right to universal education.

i. In Bangladesh the mean education of stateless groups (grade 3) was approximately grade three to six years lower than that of the citizens (grade 9).

ii. In Kenya the mean education of stateless group (grade 7) was approximately three years is lower than that of the citizens (grade 10).

iii. In Slovenia the mean education of the 'erased' group (grade 10) was approximately two years lower than that of the citizens (grade 12).

iv. In Sri Lanka, for the formerly stateless group educational attainment was approximately grade 6, one year lower than that of the citizens (grade 7).

h) There is strong evidence that household/individual educational attainment strengthens livelihood outcomes.

i) Statelessness reduces health expectancy.

With respect to livelihood assets:


a) The odds of having good access to land are lower for stateless and former stateless households. In Slovenia and Bangladesh, there was less than ten per cent chance of having access to land, just 8.5 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively. In Kenya, the odds of accessing land are especially low, at just 0.65 per cent.

b) Statelessness reduces owning a house by 59.7 per cent.

c) The odds of having social capital vary according to the country of the household; the larger the household the greater the odds of having social capital. Each additional member increased the odds by 18.6 per cent.

d) Though statelessness has no direct effect on the odds of acquiring social capital, poorer households in each country had reduced access.

e) Female headship also lowers the odds of having social capital by 47.1 per cent.

f) In terms of financial capital, the number of females in the household seems to increase the odds of having financial capital – in all the countries studied. Each female increases the odds by 20.6 per cent.

With respect to vulnerability:

a) Deprivation of citizenship can come as a shock or as a trend where citizens go on a better trajectory than the non-citizens.

b) Stateless groups are more likely to be affected by seasonal change, which restricts opportunities for work, access to food, and shelter.

c) The impact of this shock and inter-related ones are transmitted across generations as opportunities for education and health are reduced.

With respect to livelihood strategies:

a) Citizens are able to access more paid work than formerly stateless persons.

b) In Kenya and Sri Lanka this difference extends to gender, with both citizen and formerly stateless men doing more paid work than citizen and formerly stateless women respectively. Within this context more men citizens are professionals and more formerly stateless are casual workers.

c) Men perform formal work and women perform more informal work, but this is not due to citizenship.

With respect to gender parity:

a) There are notable gender differences in income/expenditure which can be quantified at both household and individual levels, though citizenship does not seem to account for these gender differences.

b) Where sufficient numbers of female headed households are available in the sample, the findings record that male headed households were better off than female headed households in terms of livelihoods.

c) Further, parents' education and citizenship has a different impact on the education outcomes of daughters than sons. Sons appear to benefit more from parents with education and citizenship than daughters in terms of education.

The results of the in-depth interviews support the quantitative results and provide further insights:

a) Regarding national identification cards, the processes and barriers to obtaining one are very important and accounted for the longest and deepest responses. Reference was repeatedly made to the problem of obtaining the supporting documents required to obtain a national identity card.

b) The in-depth interviews reveal that although the impact of the acquisition of nationality has a largely positive effect on livelihoods, it may have limited or no perceived benefit in some cases.

c) Reported benefits of citizenship include being able to purchase land, get a trade license, enrol children in school, and other social and economic benefits.

d) Access to education is affected by change in legal status.

e) Responses to the gender parity question were broad in nature rather than focused on the challenges facing women's capacity to guarantee their livelihoods.

f) While most of the respondents did not experience problems of vulnerability in terms of interactions with police and other law enforcement bodies, some did.

g) Seasonal change is a matter of concern for stateless people in some countries.

The core research team consisted of myself, Dr Maureen Lynch, Dr Rajith Lakshman and Samantha Balaton Chrimes. Field research was carried out by expert teams engaged from local NGOs and research centres in Bangladesh (AI Falah), Kenya (Centre for Minority Rights Development), Slovenia (Mirovni Tnstitut/Peace Institute), and Sri Lanka (University of Colombo).

Refugees walking (photo credit: Greg Constantine)Further research is required on the long-term effects of statelessness on people's lives, the realisation of their rights and capacities for economic and social development, and political participation. This research should focus on the areas identified as particularly problematic in this study, specifically, the intergenerational effects of deprivation of nationality.

Overall, this was a fascinating and important study, which will hopefully serve both to inform policy and encourage greater research on this neglected subject.

By Professor Brad Blitz, Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

Professor Brad Blitz has an international reputation for his work on the challenges of post-conflict integration, statelessness, and the return of refugees. He has been called upon to advise several UN agencies including UNICEF and UNDP.

Professor Blitz is a member of Kingston University's Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research which brings together experts in three research areas – geodynamics and crustal processes; environmental change; and agriculture, people and place.

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