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21 August 2018

Opinion | Democracy has failed over 10 million stateless refugees

Democracy has failed

Editor's note: This post was written by a West African asylum seeker who fled their home country fearing persecution from authorities due to their work as a journalist. 

When the word's greatest political ideology (or system of government, whichever you prefer) was conceived, it made one brazen assumption:

the people, who democracy so deeply values, must belong to a nation state.

Most, if not all, refugees cannot directly participate in democracy because, in effect, they are stateless. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons establishes the legal definition for stateless persons as individuals who are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country. Put simply, they are not “citizens”, but rather individuals existing without the recognition of belonging to a specific country or registration within a national database. In practice, if you are stateless, you are reduced to nothing. Let alone a human being. The lack of paper documentation often means that you don’t even exist, and should anything happen to you — on land, in the air, or at sea — you are just another nameless statistic. No nation out there actively ensures your safety or is obliged to even bat an eye in concern.

Let us be clear, no one is a refugee by choice, and therefore, no one wishes to be stateless. It is an undue and unjust reality that is imposed upon a population that has spent its life fleeing conflict and crisis; a population that has no home. Governments refuse to accommodate our views or honour our guaranteed rights because it is far easier to see us as less than human.

In an ideal world, recognition by a state shouldn’t be a barrier to engagement within a democracy. One could argue that statelessness in itself is undemocratic — people who aren’t considered citizens of any state are not entitled to vote and often live within borders where their plight is represented by officials who do not speak for them. Statelessness is sometimes theorised as an invisible problem because people often remain unseen and unheard as a result of their status (or lack of status). The danger of retribution, including prison or deportation, for refugees who dare to openly participate in the public sphere is real. This blog post is a testament to this fact, for the name of the original author had to be hidden in the interest of their safety and protection.

Statelessness is caused by a number of factors such as discrimination in laws that govern nationality (based on factors such as race, religion, gender or sexual orientation), persecution by governments, and domestic conflicts. The lack of proper documentation, such as a national identity card or birth certificate, puts people at a heightened risk of statelessness. This risk further arises in situations of displacement.

Refugee Child

While the exact number of stateless people is not known, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at least 10 million stateless people currently exist globally with one third of them being children.

Statelessness is caused by a number of factors such as discrimination in laws that govern nationality (based on factors such as race, religion, gender or sexual orientation), persecution by governments, and domestic conflicts. The lack of proper documentation, such as a national identity card or birth certificate, puts people at a heightened risk of statelessness. This risk further arises in situations of displacement. While the exact number of stateless people is not known, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at least 10 million stateless people currently exist globally with one third of them being children.

The consequences of statelessness go beyond the lack of representation; refugees lack basic rights many of us often take for granted. Statelessness affects access to education, employment, social welfare, housing, and healthcare, as well as civil and political rights including freedom of travel, protection from arbitrary detention, and political engagement. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, often considered the foundation of modern human rights framework, guarantees these basic rights and freedoms to “all people”, not exclusively to documented citizens of nation states. With millions of people stateless today, entire communities have come to be reduced to less than "people" within society.

How else we can spur positive change for ourselves, and in turn, meaningfully contribute to society?
Indeed, us people, us refugees, often called “aliens”, should be entitled to the same freedoms of expression, association, and assembly as other people. How else we can spur positive change for ourselves, and in turn, meaningfully contribute to society?
We're often dubbed lazy by politicians and the media; we are barred from making a living and taking steps to improve our lives.

Democracies cannot function without the inclusion of these 10 million voices that will only continue to grow. How can a system that is of the people, by the people, for the people blatantly overlook the participation of refugees? Even in the most progressive democracies, apathy and lack of political will to uphold rights of the most vulnerable segments of society serve as the biggest threats to ensuring the protection and respect for human rights of refugees. World leaders, especially in the West, are bowing to anti-immigration sentiments at the expense of respecting basic principles of human rights.

At the heart of democracy is the belief that people serve as the foundation of government and they must have a say in the decisions that concern them. Yet, in reality, this very same principle, these very same nations, translate this belief into a double standard with refugees receiving almost no say in decisions that concern their safety and protection, let alone bigger decisions.

Consider:
we no longer let only men speak on women's issues; why are refugees not being consulted on decisions concerning refugee issues?
Democracy has failed

It is unsurprising that many of us want to become politically active while in exile. Living outside our home countries offers us the possibility of campaigning for change and exposing the harsh realities of life back home without the fear of persecution by our home governments. Then again, this opportunity is negated by the threats posed to our safety while seeking asylum overseas.

Many refugees are highly skilled workers who wish to meaningfully contribute to wider society wherever they may be. In 2017, in a historical move, former Somali refugee, Ahmed Hussen, was appointed as Minister of Immigration in Canada. Ahmed arrived in Canada in 1993 as a solitary teenager, later attending law school at the University of Ottawa. Ahmed’s lived experience drew him into practising human rights law and political organising. This is just one story of over 35 million stories of how refugees wish to meaningfully participate in wider society. But Ahmed’s story is far from the reality of most refugees who dare not even dream further than making it through the day.

If refugees are at risk for engaging in wider society, and democracy refuses to consider refugees equally as part and parcel of the "people", then the world’s greatest political ideology is limiting itself to being of some people, by some people, for some people. Statelessness should not restrict any person from accessing our basic rights, from taking control of our own destinies.

This is what we ask for — to be seen as human, with or without citizenship.