Today the world has been infected by an invisible virus. But the world of yesterday was not in the best of health. It was the world of the Rohingya genocide, Syria conflict and climate emergency; of poverty, forced migration and eroding privacy; a world in which the value of citizenship diminished, even as the cost of statelessness heightened.
Had all else been equal, the COVID-19 pandemic would have ushered in a new era of inequality – disproportionately infecting key-workers and their families, disproportionately killing the elderly and those with underlying conditions; causing permanent and irreparable harm to some, while leaving others relatively unscathed. But all else is not equal. We live in a deeply unequal world, which is harsher, more dangerous and much less fair to the most vulnerable. And it is the world’s vulnerable who risk being ravaged by the virus, and (left behind) by states’ responses to it.
It is the world’s vulnerable who risk being ravaged by the virus, and (left behind) by states’ responses to it.
And so, human rights actors, donors and others have rightly been calling for the vulnerable to be protected. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, recently called for greater attention, and mitigation measures for “people in places of detention …; people with disabilities; indigenous peoples and minorities; migrants, refugees and internally displaced people; people in conflict zones; and, in particular, older people…” The UN Special Procedures issued a similar list.
As these voices amplify some groups, an unintended consequence is to heighten the invisibility of others, and to pit vulnerable groups against each other. If the UN says certain groups have the greatest needs, and if donors channel funds primarily in their direction, those excluded will be doubly victimised. The stateless are one such group, conspicuous for their absence from most lists, and not prioritised in the many COVID-19 rapid response funds that donors have so impressively scrambled together.
Of course, the condition of statelessness often overlaps with other vulnerabilities. Most stateless people belong to minorities, many are migrants or refugees, some languish in detention and a significant number live in poverty. But just as we’ve learnt to appreciate that when race and sex discrimination intersect, the impact is both different and greater, we must learn than the condition of statelessness adds a layer of vulnerability, exclusion and complexity to the experience of minorities, refugees and the poor.
The condition of statelessness adds a layer of vulnerability, exclusion and complexity to the experience of minorities, refugees and the poor.
In response to COVID-19, some governments are rallying to protect citizens and bolster creaking healthcare systems, while others see in this, an opportunity to grab more power, ramp-up surveillance and hammer away at civil liberties. Both pose dangers to the stateless. With the former, the stateless risk not being factored into decision making, or being afterthoughts at best. With the latter, they have targets on their backs.
The exclusion, or targeted marginalisation of the stateless in COVID-19 responses is not surprising. In fact, it is characteristic of how the stateless have always been treated. Historically, state-stateless relationships have fallen somewhere on a spectrum ranging from enforced invisibility and indifference (at the lowest level); to bureaucratic violence and exclusion (mid-spectrum); and targeted persecution and even genocide (in the worst case scenario).
At the lowest end of the spectrum, the stateless – invisible to state laws, not counted or planned for in development programming, and not important enough to be seen – are routinely denied their rights and access to social welfare. In the mid-spectrum scenario, the stateless are blamed and mistrusted for the failings of the state which was blind to them to begin with. This is the territory of Kafkaesque bureaucratic violence, where the stateless are compelled to establish (and re-establish) their belonging, under laws which penalise them for their inability to provide the very documents they have been denied. At the top of the spectrum lies hatred, persecution and even genocide, tragically being endured by the Rohingya today, as it was by the Jews of Nazi Germany before.
At the top of the spectrum lies… even genocide, tragically being endured by the Rohingya today, as it was by the Jews of Nazi Germany before.
In our generation’s global crisis, unless things drastically change, the stateless will continue to be too unimportant to be seen, a convenient scapegoat, and a target for hatred; but now, with the stakes higher and the cost of exclusion greater. Unless the status quo is urgently challenged, the COVID-19 impact on the stateless will be immense, and for many, irreversible.
We are already seeing the consequences. In many countries including Jordan, Malaysia and Nepal, the stateless are being excluded from state relief and economic packages, with devastating consequences. A few days ago, a Nepali activist and friend sent me a desperate message: forty families she is in touch with face starvation, as without citizenship cards, they cannot access government relief. Millions of stateless persons are also denied equal access to healthcare, and are reluctant to go to hospital due to fear of being detained and penalised. On 16 April, we heard the tragic news of over 60 stateless Rohingya dying at sea after more than 450 were denied entry to Malaysia over COVID-19 concerns. A further 500 stateless Rohingya in boats are currently being denied safe entry to Bangladesh for the same reason. Bangladesh has also locked down the Rohingya camps while continuing an internet and mobile-phone blackout. India, which has a history of attempted deportations of Rohingya and has ratcheted up Islamophobic discourse, is now seeking to track down Rohingya refugees over COVID-19 concerns.
These are just the early signs. If history has taught us anything, it is that the stateless tend to experience both the indifference and the power of the state at greater intensity than most citizens. Unfortunately, many people in influential positions, in the UN, the donor community and international organisations, whose attention and actions can make a material difference, have not acted decisively enough. As someone who has worked on the right to a nationality and for the rights of stateless persons for over twelve years, I have paradoxically witnessed both an encouraging increase in awareness of the issue, and an enduring inability to recognise the unique vulnerabilities of the stateless, which demand separate attention.
Perhaps, the history of the sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) movement is instructive. For most of the twentieth century, the gay community was the most visible of the sexual minorities. But as lesbians and other groups organised to counter the societal discrimination they endured and the hierarchies within the SOGIE community, the LGBTQIA+ lexicon emerged and grew. The inclusion of each new initial marked the recognition of a pre-existing group through an eradication of their invisibility. Visibility leads to awareness, recognition and validation. It can also lead to backlash and persecution, but overwhelmingly, individuals and groups want to be seen and heard.
If we were to put forth a vulnerability lexicon today, the stateless will likely not be included. Not because their rights are any less at risk, their experience any less deserving or their needs any less urgent. Responsibility lies not with the stateless, but with those privileged enough to influence which groups get more attention. There has perhaps been a failure to scrutinise which groups are not included in mainstream discourse and why; a failure to listen to the world’s stateless and truly understand what they endure; a failure to embrace messiness and complexity and to acknowledge that the scarcity of data doesn’t always mean the lack of a problem – it can sometimes mean the opposite.
Millions of stateless persons… are reluctant to go to hospital due to fear of being detained and penalised.
Sadly, the stateless are used to not being seen, counted or included. They are also used to this somehow being articulated as their shortcoming: they are invisible (as opposed to we are blind), they live on the margins (as opposed to we’ve pushed them to the periphery) and they are illegal (as opposed to our law is unjust).
When confronted with the invisible killer that is COVID-19, the moral choice before us is clear. Recognise the stateless, demand their protection, resource activists who are working against all odds to make a difference, listen to and be accountable to them; or continue to be blind to the stateless, further entrenching their vulnerability and precarity in this time of greatest need.