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Statelessness: Here's how removing a person's nationality causes problems

People access their human rights through citizenship – without it, people can’t to go to school, get a job, or get married.

Shamima Begum, who fled the UK to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria aged 15, and was stripped of her British citizenship.
Shamima Begum, who fled the UK to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria aged 15, and was stripped of her British citizenship.
Image: PA

THIS WEEK SAW the UK and the US threaten to revoke the citizenship of two women who fled their countries of birth to join the Islamic State.

The first was the case of Shamima Begum, who left the UK aged 15 to join the Islamic State in Baghuz, Syria. After a number of interviews in the British media in which she expressed a desire to go back to the UK, the British government informed her family that her British citizenship was being revoked

Begum’s citizenship was being revoked on the basis that her parents are Bangladeshi. Later, however, Bangladesh clarified that she did not hold citizenship with them, leaving Begum as stateless (although she and her lawyers are to appeal the decision).

Her son was born days before her citizenship was revoked, meaning that he is entitled to British citizenship, despite his mother no longer holding it.

On Wednesday, US president Donald Trump tweeted out that he had instructed his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to not allow US-born Hoda Muthana back into the country. She had previously left her home state of Alabama to join the Islamic State.

“Ms Hoda Muthana is not a US citizen and will not be admitted into the United States,” Pompeo said in a statement.

She does not have any legal basis, no valid US passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States.

The US generally grants citizenship to everyone born on its soil; 24-year-old Muthana is believed to have traveled to Syria on a US passport, meaning that her citizenship was arguably revoked.

Islamic State Bride Alabama Hoda Muthana, an Alabama woman who left home to join the Islamic State after becoming radicalised online. Source: AP

Many countries, including Ireland, have signed up to a 1954 Convention to committing to end statelessness – so what is it?

What is statelessness?

Although there isn’t absolute agreement on what statelessness is, the most accepted definition of a stateless person is someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.

A person can become stateless if neither they nor any country has official documentation to prove where they were born – this is particularly relevant for war-torn countries.

In some cases it happens when laws around citizenship and nationality are not written exactly or correctly applied, with the result that some people can be excluded and left stateless.

It can also happen if two countries’ borders change and people between them get left out.

Other times it occurs because of deliberate discrimination against a particular minority.

The US currently does not recognise statelessness, so if a stateless person in the US is ordered out of the country, some of the hardships that they might face include an inability to obtain travel documents and the possibility of being held in immigration detention for months or longer. 

In these cases, it can be a lonely process to search for citizenship; some people will have to report periodically to immigration authorities, and request travel documents from all countries to which they may have a claim to citizenship, either based on her/his parentage or place of birth.

Others could try to contact third countries to ask their permission to be sent there, whether they have ties to that country or not (this could take a form of asylum).

The UNHCR reports that there are at least 10 million people around the world who are “denied a nationality”. 

“As a result, they often aren’t allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married,” it said.

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Statelessness and Ireland

Ireland signed up to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons in 1973 (the same year it joined the European Economic Community, which was the precursor to the EU).

There’s no formal procedure here in Ireland to recognise people who are stateless. The Department of Justice’s website only makes reference to statelessness on this page, where it says that if you need an Irish visa, you may hold a 1954 Convention Travel Document, and links to the UNHCR page.

In response to queries from Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said that “there is no specific determination process for recognition of stateless persons in Ireland”.

“…Claims of statelessness can arise at any point in the immigration and protection processes and the numbers involved are very low.

“These cases are frequently disposed of without recourse to a determination of statelessness through procedures (e.g. permission to remain) set out under the Immigration Acts or International Protection Acts.

“Such cases are not centralised in a single process or section of the immigration service and, as such, statistics on stateless persons are not available.”

- with reporting from AFP

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