Putting it in Perspective: Stateless, Not Forgotten

Posted by Rachel Horn on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 14:39 pm

What areas of the world do we think of when we think about human rights issues? Africa? Maybe some of us would think of nations in the former Soviet Union or countries in Asia. After the uprisings during the Arab Spring, the Middle East is on everyone’s mind as well. But few of us might be aware that Latin America, a vast region encompassing countries in South America and Central America, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, is also home to a serious human rights crisis: statelessness. The epicenter of the statelessness crisis in Latin America is between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This issue has become more pronounced in the aftermath of the January 2010earthquake in Haiti.

Statelessness is the condition of an individual who is not considered a national by any state. Statelessness can occur during conflict, during changes in state identity, such as breakups of larger countries into smaller nations or state successions into independent states, and as a result of conflicts of laws between states. It is estimated to affect more than 12 million people worldwide.

On the island of Hispaniola, increasing prejudice against the Dominican-Haitian population has led to a surge in restrictive laws that deny nationality and citizenship to Dominicans of Haitian descent. These individuals do not typically have Haitian nationality, because the Haitian Constitution has a native-born requirement for nationality, and the individuals most at risk under the current legal framework were born in the Dominican Republic. In 2004, the Dominic Republic enacted a new “General Law on Migration.” Until that point, anyone born on Dominican territory, except for children of diplomats and parents who were “in transit,” had the right to Dominican nationality. “In transit” meant someone who had resided in the country for 10 days or less. The new law changed the definition of “in transit,” broadening it to include children born on Dominican soil to non-citizen parents.

The retroactive application of this law has fueled the crisis, sweeping in people who previously had documentation and leading to the re-classification of many individuals as “in transit” and therefore illegal. The law provides civil registry officials virtually unchecked discretion to deny documentation or void documents that seem “irregular.” When individuals with proper documentation seek to apply for copies of their paperwork or access the rights of citizenship using their documents, they are voided. A “Book of Foreigners” was created to register children of undocumented mothers, and the registration process has been used to systematically identify Dominicans of Haitian ancestry and strip them of their nationality. In January 2010, the Dominican Republic adopted a new constitution, which included these revised conditions for Dominican nationality.

Statelessness itself is considered to be a violation of the universal human right to nationality. Moreover, stateless individuals have difficulty accessing many basic services and institutions within their countries, such as education, health care, birth registration, or proof of identity. Think about everything you couldn’t do in the United States without a birth certificate: enroll in school, obtain a social security card, travel outside the country (no passport), or drive (no license).

Two international conventions—the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness—form the basis of the legal protections afforded to this class of individuals. However, these provisions are far from universally recognized; as of June 2011, only 66 states were parties to the 1954 Convention and only 38 were party to the 1961 Convention. The United States is not a party to either. This limited recognition compromises the protections that the international community can afford to stateless individuals. In addition to being the 60th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention, this year is the 50th Anniversary of the 1961 Convention on Statelessness. As part of the commemoration of these two anniversaries, the UNHCR has increased its efforts to promote acceptance of the obligations of the Statelessness Conventions.

While achieving a solution to this global issue requires strengthening our international legal mechanisms, steps can be taken on a country-by-country basis as well. In the United States, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Refugee Protection Act in March 2010 and again in June 2011. The proposed legislation fills gaps under the Refugee Act of 1980, including providing a pathway for stateless persons in the U.S. to apply for legal permanent residency and obtain the right to nationality. You can help by learning more about statelessness here and by urging Congress to pass the Refugee Protection Act.

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