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June 18, 2009
Q&A: Ask your questions on statelessness

Imagine you have no birth certificate, no passport and no legal rights. You’re trapped in the country where you were born, but no document indicates that you even exist. The state doesn’t recognize you, so you can’t vote, you can’t access education and you can’t obtain formal employment.

This is a worst-case situation, but across the globe, between 12 and 15 million people live in various stages of statelessness, which means they lack citizenship in any country.

Some of the most notably stateless people include the Palestinians of the Middle East, the ethnic Tutsis of Central Africa, some Roma in Europe and Haitian children in the Dominican Republic.’s weekly radio show explored the common themes that surface among stateless people — economic discrimination, social exclusion, identity and the feeling of invisibility.

Thank you for your questions. Martin Savidge hosted a panel of guests, including:

Bill Berkeley, previously an investigative reporter and editorial writer at The New York Times, teaches journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa and a forthcoming book on statelessness.

Dawn Calabia is a senior adviser for Refugees International. She has 30 years of experience with foreign policy analysis, human rights issues and public advocacy. She has handled governmental and non-governmental relations in the U.S. and the Caribbean for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and has led numerous fact-finding missions to Central America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa.

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More important than statelessness is having no culture. People forget that the Kurds – by and large – are stateless yet their culture gives them some source of strength. States have always politicized the rights of people to exist. That’s the power elite, king, oligarch, sultan, whatever title.

Focusing on what people in the capitol city thinks is why there are so many stateless and even multitudes more poor within the states. What about the people who have a state and are still treated like crap. Remember New Orleans LA U.S.A. Americans being called refugees in their own country.

Statehood’s not the answer. Statehood is good for appropriations purposes and national organization, but statehood is no guarantee to rights. Ask the Iranians who want a more conciliatory relationship with the outside world causing the current crisis. They have statehood. Cultural ties is the answer. But then again it’s about destroying cultures. Destroy the Tutsi’s culture in central Africa, apartheid against the Palestinian culture, anti-black in the United States, on and on, and on …

It has long since been forgotten the true and lasting value of the atomic family unit, community and the extension of a society that respects these. Societies that focus on statehood (an institution) and all other institutional ways of living really don’t get it.

Insitutionalized thinking (strangers making life decisions about others long distance) is at the heart. Centralized power, corporate, government or otherwise is the problem. In th U.S. one side complains about big government when they just want big corporations (i.e. quasi-government corporations) that are not even democratic and the public has no say on who become the kings (i.e. board members and directors).

It’s about culture, family, community and then society. No one remembers this anymore. Sad!


No one is really stateless. At some point humanity must realize that all are the citizens of this single universe. The fact that one child is left behind or dies unjustly reflects a defect in our whole society. We all remain homeless and stateless as long as one child is forgotten.

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