What is statelessness and why does it matter to RSN?

Imagine a scenario where your home country is replaced without notice–boundaries redrawn and new countries surface overnight. To which state do you belong? Now consider the new laws and policies governing you and your family. Are you included, protected, and given rights? Or do you find yourself marginalized and unsafe because your community is excluded from citizenship?

In many parts of the world, colonialism’s unraveling introduced certain benefits, yet a number of grave challenges still persist today as people grapple with governance structures and partitioned lands. Exclusionary colonial-era laws–often carried over into the new state–prescribed unclear definitions of who would be considered a citizen–leaving minority groups devastated and disenfranchised. These very same laws also complicated and failed to recognize protection needs of those fleeing persecution, thus creating no legal distinction between refugees and other foreign nationals. These gaps in legislation continue to disrupt rights access as stateless communities and refugees often live with legal precarity for decades.

Along with 30 million refugees worldwide, UNHCR estimates that approximately 10 million individuals fall under the statelessness category–one-third of which are understood to be children. Without citizenship, birth certificates, passports, and other legal identity documents, statelessness is often passed down from generation to generation—creating a perpetual cycle of legal vulnerability.

Lack of legal protection, status, and documentation, are shared challenges facing both stateless communities and refugees. The absence of a legal identity seeps into everyday life, hindering access to even the most basic of human rights. Stateless communities and refugees around the globe struggle to access medical care, banking services, and jobs in the formal economy and government sectors. While each stateless and refugee story is unique—carrying with it its own legal barriers and challenges—it’s nearly impossible for stateless and refugee communities to obtain driver’s licenses, own a home or property, nor exercise their rights to vote. Mobility is limited, as travel outside of the country is frequently forbidden—putting them at risk of arrest and detention. Children are forced to take on low-wage jobs as their ability to enroll in public schools remains restricted. South Asia, a region still experiencing the effects of its colonial history, is grappling with a number of challenges, including marginalization of certain communities.

Sameer’s Statelessness Story

It was cold and dark when Sameer left home—rising before the sun and returning beneath bright moonlight was typical for the eight-year-old. Quickly slipping on plastic sandals he found at the market, Sameer grabs his trash cart and heads towards downtown Karachi. For Sameer, and other young Afghan boys his age, fleeing to Pakistan in late 2021 was the only option—despite its own uncertainties and challenges.

After losing his father to violence in Kabul, Sameer and his family escaped conflict. They made the tiring journey to Pakistan—settling in Al-Asif Square among other Afghans before them. Unfortunately, without proper legal status, thousands of undocumented Afghan refugees are prohibited from enrolling in government schools.  Shattered were Sameer’s goals and dreams—promises of an education he had made to his late father. Obligated to care for his mother and young sister, he collects waste in the city for five rupees a day.

As a result of his situation as a stateless refugee, Sameer is exposed to gang violence, police harassment, and destitution. Lack of national identity cards and growing anti-refugee sentiments put Sameer and his family at risk of potential deportation.

For now, he makes his way up and down crowded city streets. Sameer knows one day he’ll leave home for a different reason—wearing new shoes on his feet and a backpack in hand. He replays this image over and over in his mind—hoping for change in a country he now calls home.

Farzana’s Statelessness Story

Flipping through the pages of her worn textbook, guilt washes over Farzana as she recognizes her unique situation. Not many girls from Machar Colony study past grade school—some without the opportunity to enroll at all. The majority of her ethnic Pakistani-Bengali village remains illiterate, as poverty within their marginalized community engulfs their everyday lives. But Farzana’s parents knew their daughter was special. After many years of taking on multiple low-wage jobs to ensure Farzana could access school books and a tutor, their overall health has deteriorated as years go by without the medical treatments they need.

Due to political divisions and ethnic discrimination—Farzana’s parents, born in present-day Pakistan, are considered stateless foreigners in the only place they’ve ever known. Deprived of education, mobility, healthcare, and with no birth certificate—Farzana by definition, is stateless too.

She dreams of traveling abroad, enrolling in college, becoming a doctor, and returning home to serve the village that raised her. However, with Farzana’s precarious legal status, her hopes for the future often wane as the present political situation persists.

For now, she continues to study day and night, aiming to receive a scholarship and visa abroad. Indebted to her parents for sacrificing their lives and health, Farzana knows she’ll have the proper knowledge one day to treat her ailing mother and father—returning to them just an ounce of what they’ve gifted her—a chance at life in a world rejecting her existence.

Sameer and Farzana’s stories are fictional portrayals written by Samah Asfour, RSN’s Communications Manager, and illustrated by Ayouni Studios. Based on anecdotal evidence and research, they reflect common themes and struggles of statelessness.

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