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June 23, 2009
Transcript: Online radio show on statelessness

What follows is a transcript of Worldfocus’ online radio show on statelessness.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Hello everybody, I’m Martin Savidge of Worldfocus and welcome to our weekly radio show. Today we’re going to discuss the issue of statelessness — people who lack citizenship in any country — which impacts at least 12 million people around the globe. From the Rohingyas in Burma and the Nubians in Kenya to some Roma in Europe, we will look at how to deal with these groups, living in legal limbo. Before we begin, we are very fortunate to have these guests with us: Bill Berkeley is a former investigative reporter and former editorial writer for the New York Times, he teaches journalism at Columbia University, he’s the author of “The Graves are Not Yet Full.” Bill is currently writing a book on the very subject of statelessness. And then we have Dawn Calabia. She is a senior advisor for Refugees International, she has 20 years experience with foreign policy analysis, human rights issues and public advocacy. She’s led numerous fact-finding missions to Central America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Thanks to both of you for joining us this evening. Dawn, I’m going to ask you to start for us and it’s a simple yet complicated task. Can you define “statelessness?”

DAWN CALABIA: Yes, Martin, “statelessness” means a person doesn’t have a nationality — no state considers that person to be a citizen, no state is willing to give to protect that person’s rights or accord them this person’s civil participation in the society.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: And what’s the difference say between a refugee, which many people tend to think of, and a stateless person — or is there a difference?

DAWN CALABIA: Well the big thing is a refugee has crossed an international boundary and has left the country he or she usually leads lives in and is considered a national [inaud]. A stateless person doesn’t have any state that says this is person is a is a Burmese, this person is Thai, this person is not recognized. They don’t have a passport, they usually don’t have identity documents, and so the difference is the person is living in a country he or she is born, possibly the family has been there for generations, maybe hundreds of years but they’re not recognized by that state as belonging to the state.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: And Bill, give us a kind of historical context here on how people become stateless. How does it happen?

BILL BERKELEY: Well the original example of statelessness that first brought worldwide concern to the problem, the Jews of Europe in the middle of the last century were stripped of their citizenship first by the Nazis and then by others during the second World War and the history of the Jews in the last century highlights some of the complexity of the problem because the solution to the statelessness of the Jews was a state of their own which in turn created another group of stateless people, the Palestinians. One point I would add to Dawn’s definition, I’ve just been working on this problem for a year or so and one of the things that strikes me is that it’s not a static problem. As with the case of Jews in Europe during the last century, stateless groups tend to be persecuted, they tend to get caught up in armed conflict, stuff happens to them.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: This is also a problem that seems to have appeared, I won’t say only because of the post-colonial period, but when we started organizing colonies we seemed to have caused many problems in the nations or in the region in which they lived, is that right Bill?

BILL BERKELEY: Yes, another example of statelessness in the last century — the Tutsis of Central Africa, who were initially favored by the Belgians during Belgian colonial rule and then expelled from, or driven out of Rwanda, in particular, after the end of colonial rule and the rise of Hutu majority domination. Thiry, 40 years later they sought to regain a position in their country, and regain citizenship and that wound up triggering a genocide and then across the border in Zaire, what was in Zaire, a huge scale war. So yes, post-colonial problems particularly in South Asia, former British colonies like Pakistan, India. The break up of India created stateless groups there as well.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Alright, I’d like to play a clip from…


MARTIN SAVIDGE: Hold on just one second Dawn, I’m going to play this clip and then we’ll carry on. This is from Adam Hussein who was born stateless in Kenya and is currently the project coordinator of the Open Society Initiative for east Africa.

CLIP ADAM HUSSEIN: I am a Nubian myself, and therefore I have experienced most of what I’m going to tell you personally. One of the issues regarding the Nubian is that the citizenship in Kenya is based on ethnic affiliation. Ethnic group is first and foremost the entry point into nationality. The unfortunate bit is that Nubians being a group of people brought into Kenya from the Sudan by the British colonialists remain unrecognant and as a result of that incognitions, Nubians have end up having a doubtful citizenship and because of that there have been lingering between being citizens and being non-citizens.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: So Dawn, is Adam’s case reflective of what stateless people go through? I mean, can you list the common problems that stateless people have experienced?

DAWN CALABIA: Yes, unfortunately it is common. People who become stateless sometimes through the act of a state. So for instance, Burma, Myanmar decided that when they redid their citizenship law decided that 850,000 people who live in the icon state, Rohingyas, they’re called commonly, are not citizens and therefore they have no right to won property, they have no right to vote, they have no right to own passports — they’re not allowed to move around in the country. Similarly in Thailand, there are about 2 million hill tribe descendents who are not recognized as citizens of that country even though they and their parents and in some cases their grandparents and great parents-grandparents have spent most of their lives on Thai soil. So when you’re a stateless person, you don’t have a right to get — first of all even register your birth sometimes to register your marriage, to have your children go to school, to have the opportunity vote, to own property, to even have a bank account, things that we take as everyday rights of any citizen anywhere. A stateless person doesn’t have those rights.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: There are of course stateless groups all over the world but one that seems to hit close to home for many Americans is the one playing out in the Dominican Republic. Bill, you’ve been reporting on stateless Haitians in the Dominican Republic, what’s the situation like?

BILL BERKELEY: Well it’s a very interesting story and emblematic of many stateless stories in that it has a history behind it and in the case of the Dominican Republic, discrimination and racism against descendents of Haitian migrant workers goes back to the dictatorship of Raphael Trueheo, the 30 year old dictatorship that ended in 1961. He used racism as a political tool, he used fear of Haitians and fear of Haiti as a means of legitimizing his military dictatorship. He developed, with the help of intellectuals, an ideology of racism against the descendents of Haitian migrant workers that continues down to the present day and indeed the situation is getting worse now than it has been in the past. Nationalist politicians, embattled nationalists, trying to hold onto power and the riches that go with it in a changing global economy have been playing the race card, playing the racist card, and actually denationalizing some Haitians who have acquired citizenship. These are people, Haitians, who many of them have lived in the Dominican Republic for generations, many of them now working in the cities, no longer in the sugar economy, mostly in construction and in the tourism industry but they’re being stripped with their citizenship in a current campaign of nationalist ideological fermentation. They can’t get jobs, they can’t get education, they can’t get healthcare, and they can’t get justice. It’s a bad situation.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: How many are we talking about here?

BILL BERKELEY: It’s a debate about how many there are. Some say as many as half a million.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: I’d like to keep the conversation going by bringing in a question from one of our viewers, Michael Sanders of New York asked this question: This state of statelessness, is it not a man made situation for political gain? And I throw that out to both of you. Dawn?

DAWN CALABIA: Well, sometimes it certainly is. The situation on the Ivory Coast, for instance, the Cote D’Ivore where their last election campaign resulted in the whole question of who is an Ivorian? Who is eligible to vote? How many generations? How many parents must be have been born in the state — in the Ivory territory? And it’s resulted in a civil war and in the case of the Rohingas from Burma, tens of thousands have left as refugees going out in small boats, walking across jungles to try and find a new life and many of them have encountered basically enslavement conditions and they’ve been trafficked for-for labor purposes. Stateless people have a really tough road to hoe. Statelessness can happen as the result from the laws changing of a country, they can result from the marriage of a national to a non-national, in some cases women are not allowed to pass citizenship to their children. It can happen as the result of someone failing to register their birth and never having documentations to prove and then having to go back and legally construct. The U.N. refugee agency works with some of these people and so does UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, they’re trying to improve birth registration procedures around the world and to educate people about their rights and about their ability to claim a nationality.

BILL BERKELEY: If I could just amplify on the example that Dawn gave of the Ivory Coast and West Africa, classic case that the questioner is right to ask- aren’t these political footballs? Yes, the problem of statelessness is not just the problem of victim-hood. There are perpetrators, there are people who benefit from statelessness, there are political actors, political entrepreneurs who use statelessness in order to aggrandize their power. In Cote D’Ivoire there was a term “Ivoritee” that politicians use to try to initially exclude a presidential candidate and then marginalize all of his presumed supporters among the descendents of migrant workers along the coast of the Cote D’Ivoire. Ivoritee in Ivory Coast, in near by Mauritania, the term was “Arabization” where politicians or political elite sought to initially drive out a 100,000 black Mauritanians as a means of eliminating political opposition. They used the term “Arabization.” In the Dominican Republic, political entrepreneurs use the term “Dominicad” or “Domincan-ness.” Stateless groups are targets of persecution, political persecution and racist ideology that serves political agendas.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Are there any perfect storm conditions that make statelessness possible?

DAWN CALABIA: Well certainly war and state secession, in other words when a state breaks up, the break up of the former Soviet Union, resulted in a lot of statelessness, the break up of Yugoslavia, the break up of the Czechoslovakia, the break up caused people to be in different parts of the territory, in different states, enacted different laws. The whole post World War II phenomena with the changing boundaries in Europe led to the adoption of a convention on statelessness, on the prevention of statelessness by the United Nations. But its uh the rights of states, of sovereign states, to determine who their citizens are but we ask states to also look at international law, customary and treaties which recognize the importance of every child, every person having the right to a name and a nationality and its encouraging states to protect that right and to grant it to children born on their soil, otherwise they would be stateless and the right to a nationality and its something that we think should be a greater U.S. foreign policy objective. As a matter of what we’ve been working with a coalition of human rights organizations in Washington to have the Congress adopt legislation that would make this an important issue for American foreign policy so that when it deals with states, when it tries to help negotiate peace treaties, to ensure that every person living on the territory has a right to a nationality.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: I’ll tell you what Dawn, we’ll get to that a little later in the program on what the U.S. should do on this particular matter. Let me play a clip for you now from Julia Harrington, she’s a senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative and she explains how her organization uses legal channels to advocate for stateless people. She has brought cases before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

CLIP JULIA HARRINGTON: In advocating for a right to citizenship through legal means we’re hoping to create a universal standard so that across the world, people’s race to citizenship will be approximately the same. In taking a legal approach, we use existing human rights norms such as anti-discrimination, equality norms and the right to due process, to have one’s cause heard and we apply them to citizenship. Legal means can be particularly helpful if an important legal case is one that can apply to a lot of people and if a legal principle established, it can’t just be changed with the next election and political advocacy is usually confined to just one country.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Bill, what do you think of that? Do you agree with that legal strategy and is it working to solve statelessness?

BILL BERKELEY: Yes and no, I certainly hate to disagree with Julia Harrington of all people because the Open Society Justice Initiative is supporting my work. I’m not a lawyer, but one thing that I’ve found is that justice by itself, legal advocacy by itself is often is not adequate — but I really applaud what they’re doing. But an example in the Dominican Republic is illustrative. The Inter-American Court issued a landmark ruling several years ago requiring the Dominican Republic to grant citizenship to descendents of Haitian- children of Haitian descent who were born in the Dominican Republic. The government in the Dominican Republic simply flouted that ruling and then passed an amendment to its constitution recently, entrenching its own policies in contradiction to that ruling which simply highlights that ultimately many of these problems of statelessness require political will and the law by itself can be an instrument to drive political will but ultimately when political elites are benefiting from the persecution of stateless people a political solution and perhaps international political pressure is called for.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Dawn what are the international bodies that are working to ensure the rights of stateless groups?

DAWN CALABIA: Well in principle the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR. UNICEF, the UN’s children agency, which works on birth registration around the world and obviously they’re trying to protect the rights of women and children. Also, the U.N. development program works to help countries improve their legal systems and their judicial systems. Also, the U.N. office of the high- human rights looks at this issue and actually, the current Secretary-General has set up a commission on law at the United Nations to encourage states to look at best practices in these areas and obviously citizenship laws, we think are an extremely important one and also the means to make it possible for citizens to obtain their rights and the recognition of their rights.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Is it difficult to sort of work on this on an international level because we’re really talking about states claiming sovereignty over the people who live within their borders?

DAWN CALABIA: We are, but we’re also talking about international standards, as Julia was saying, we use legal means — advocacy under existing laws. One case of legal advocacy that works is sometimes the groups themselves, stateless groups organize and try to develop and put political pressure on their issue and this happened in Bangladesh where the Baharis, who were 37 years weren’t recognized as citizens as either Bangladesh or Pakistan, a situation that created during the war between Bangladesh and Pakistan, went to court and through a succession of court cases, succeeded as being recognized as having the rights to citizenship in that country. They did their timing really well and built political support amongst the media and the political elites and also amongst the artistic communities in the country and they were having national elections were coming up and I think that both countries were interested in having more people register to vote for their particular parties and as a results, for the first time a 150,000 Baharis had the right to register and obtain identity cards and many of them voted for the first time in their election.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Well, let’s turn now to the United States because on June 10th for the first time the House of Representatives passed legislation to recognize and reduce statelessness. So Dawn, what’s the purpose of this bill and why is this statelessness cause gaining traction, especially now?

DAWN CALABIA: Well I think, as Bill was pointing out earlier, situations like in the Ivory Coast, where you had elections disrupted and where you had civil war break out. He also mentioned in the Congo and in Rwanda with the whole fight in the Congo over the Danimolanga, who Zaire granted the-stripped the citizenship and the current government in the Congo has restored it and so 500,000 people are in the process of trying to gain their rights and their identity to be able to vote in the elections. I think that increasingly we see that lack of citizenship can lead to disaffection and conflict. We also see that it’s a serious human rights problem because if a part of a society loses their rights, its easy to see that others can slide down that slope as well. And so we’ve been able to work with Congress and the administration to point out the importance of this issue and I think that the break up of the Soviet Union and the break up of Yugoslavia, even the split of Ethiopia and Eritrea, put this issue front and center. That people-people’s rights have to be protected, that they have to have place to call home, a place that will give them political rights and also responsibilities as a citizen of that country.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: And Bill, I just wanted to point out that this bill addresses this issue of global stability and security. What are the implications for the US and the international community if people remain uncounted?

BILL BERKELEY: Well I was just going to amplify on what Dawn was saying, a term that we haven’t used yet but I think is worth at least introducing into the conversation and thinking a little bit about it and that is “de facto statelessness,” people who whether or not are acknowledged as citizens of a given country but as a practical matter really don’t have rights and are treated as second class citizens. And a particularly vivid example of that is Sudan, in the case of Darfur and in the long-running conflict in Sudan. These are conflicts that are driven in large part by the insurgencies crated by people who considered themselves as persecuted as second class citizens by a lawless regime. So, anyone who is concerned for example about Darfur and the extreme violence that is going on there has to be concerned about statelessness and these are problems that engage the entire international community too.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Has the Obama administration, have they come forward, do we know what their stance is on this issue of statelessness?

DAWN CALABIA: Well, actually the administration has been doing some work both at the United Nations and also individual countries. The State Department’s Human Rights Report has been reporting on instances of statelessness and what individual states are or aren’t doing to remedy that situation. So for instance, in Nepal, when there was an attempt to bring peace about, that government recognized the citizenship of 2.6 million people who were formerly not considered as citizens of Nepal. Similarly in Sri Lanka, during that long and bloody conflict, that government granted citizenship to Tomo citizens- Indian-Tomo citizens who had lived in that country for almost a hundred years but had never been given the right to citizenship or the right to vote or participate in the political life of that country.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Well I’m going to turn to a very well known case, in the case of many Americans, and that’s of course the Palestinians and how they have remained without any citizenship since the creation of Israel in 1948, at least many of them and I would like to play another pre-recorded clip and this one is from Samira Trad, the director of Beirut-based Frontiers-Ruwad, a human rights NGO:

CLIP SAMIRA TRAD: As you know there-there are a number of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and actually Syria… and even in the West Bank who for one reason or another… and therefore they are not given the status of a refugee and in Lebanon, the status of the undocumented Palestinian refugee is complicated because Lebanon, like many of the neighboring countries, received refugees in 1968 and onwards. They follow the U.N. definition of refugees from Palestine.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Bill, could you explain why many ethnic groups striving for their own state today, such as the Kurds and the Palestinians, also lack citizenship rights all together and is this a coincidence?

BILL BERKELEY: I think in the case of Kurds and Palestinians, they’re good examples of how complex the problem can be. There has been violent conflict, there has been destabilization, you can make the argument that the presence of Palestinians was a fundamental cause of the years of civil war in Lebanon. You could also argue, as I said earlier, that these groups become political footballs, certainly in the case of the Palestinians scattered around the Middle East. Their seeming victimhood has been used, and some would say perpetuated, by other states in the region in order to continue to isolate Israel. So I’m not sure if I can speak more generally about all groups around the world and one of the reasons that the issue is hard to address is because there are different causes in every region and different political contexts in every region and the solutions are different in every region. It’s difficult to generalize too much.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: I want to bring in a few more questions from some of our viewers. We have Patrick Benz of Miami, Florida who asked a fairly simple but straightforward question. He say: “is overpopulation to blame for statelessness?” Dawn, what do you say to that?

DAWN CALABIA: I wouldn’t say that’s a cause for statelessness. The things that we’ve looked at in terms of the research that we’ve been doing over the last 6 years, point instead to political change, to wars and disruption and to forced migrations as more of a cause, frankly, of statelessness of a population.


DAWN CALABIA: But there’s no doubt that some countries might use that as an excuse but we don’t see it as a real cause.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: And then we have Maurice of Omaha, who says “Do you really think that statehood is the answer? Why is the failure of institution time and again not acknowledged?” Bill, you want to take a stab at that?

BILL BERKELEY: I think it’s a good question and I think that your questioner may be right that sometimes, statehood or citizenship by itself doesn’t solve the problem, and that there are instances where the real fundamental problem is lawless states and that even if you granted citizenship, if you still have a lawless junta in power as you do say now in Mauritania, you’ve got the — the problem doesn’t end with citizenship.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: So as we, sort of wind down our conversation here, where in the world might the U.S. intervene say perhaps on behalf of a stateless population? Or do you even see that happening?

DAWN CALABIA: Well, what we were trying to do is to make sure that this was part of the agenda- the human rights agenda when we talk about these issues around the world. We were concerned, that Bangladesh, for example, which gets large amount of aid for its humanitarian needs and understandably but this issue, for a long time, wasn’t high on the international agenda in that country. We’re concerned that in Kuwait, for instance, there’s a population of Kurds who were stripped of their citizenship years ago and again, we think that in that country, something should be done. Discussions are now in the Parliament because the U.S. has raised it at least diplomatically and that the U.N. is attempting to get the Kuwati parliament and the government to address it. So we think that it’s the issue that should be there. We saw the situation in the break up of the former Soviet Union where many people were stateless and in some cases, the U.S. and other countries wound up resettling the populations of Mitgetsien Turks because there was no way to resolve their citizenship situation. So Russia, who gave them citizenship and their successive states would not recognize their citizenship either. So we think that it’s a way to resolve a lot of situations and to put people back in control and to give them not only their rights but have them embrace their responsibilities to work in their own countries, to improve the political economic situations.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: And as we wrap it up here Dawn, let me just ask you is there anything that you would like our listeners to take away regarding the issues that we’ve been talking about — the politics, the security concerns, the human rights abuses — what do you want people to remember?

DAWN CALABIA: I think I want them to remember that Americans are lucky obviously that if you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the country and you have the rights and responsibilities from birth. But in many places it doesn’t happen that way. In some cases it’s the lack of a $10 fee for a birth registration or the ability to get two witnesses to make a hold or a protestation of having been present at the birth, prevents a child from being able to get an education, from being able to get healthcare, from being able to be active politically in their country. And these are things that need to be addressed in foreign policy, in development issues and in human rights work. 12 million people without citizenship, without the rights that we recognize as very basic human rights- the right to work, the right to have-or own property, the right to marry, the right to practice religion but without those rights, a substantial portion of the population is at risk everyday.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Bill, a parting thought?

BILL BERKELEY: Well, I would just underscore the concern that racism can be used as a political tool and is used as a political tool all over the world and it was ever thus and statelessness is a grave problem and is also a window on the uses of racism in politics and how political leaders, political entrepreneurs use racism in order to acquire and hold on to power.

MARTIN SAVIDGE: Well once again, a half hour has flown by. I’d like to thank our guests Bill Berkeley and Dawn Calabia. Bill, you’re headed to South Asia this summer to report on stateless groups there so we’ll be looking forward to reading your blog posts at where you can find our summer long project “Stateless to Statehood.” I’m Martin Savidge, thanks for joining us.

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