Difficulties accessing education and employment; restricted property rights; lack of opportunities to own or register a business; limited access to a bank account or a loan; and, in some cases, the threat of extortion, detention or expulsion; these factors can trap stateless persons in poverty and make it extremely challenging for them to improve their circumstances. Where statelessness affects whole communities over several successive generations – as it often sadly does, such communities can be neglected by development actors and processes. This can result in a significant lag behind others in the country or region in terms of development. Statelessness means a waste, of individual potential, of human capital and of development opportunities.
The above quote is from the Institute’s 2014 World’s Stateless Report, when ISI was just beginning to appreciate how the development field could contribute towards addressing statelessness, by including them in development programming, thereby enhancing their lives and future prospects. Since then, the successful negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has unlocked far greater potential in this sector, setting an ambitious agenda to be reached by 2030. While statelessness is not explicitly mentioned in the SDGs, the relevance of many of the Goals to statelessness is obvious at first glance. For example, stateless persons are often denied access to quality education and healthcare, whereas SDGs four and three respectively aspire to a world in which everyone – including the stateless – does have access to such fundamental services. Digging a little deeper unearths an exciting level of potential of the SDGs to not only give the stateless access to services, but to also combat statelessness. However, some causes for concern and tricky patches to be negotiated also become apparent upon closer inspection.
Among the potential difficulties, is the relationship between the human rights and development frameworks, which should be complementary, but which do not always operate in that manner. Indeed, one of the concerns of human rights actors is that ‘development’ can pave the way for states to follow a ‘human rights light’ approach, which undermines existing human rights obligations. Development can also provide a distraction from the ongoing exclusion and violation of marginalised and minority groups (including many that are stateless) as a spotlight is shone elsewhere on development gains for the majority. Concerns such as these appear to have been – at least partly - taken on board by the SDGs, which emphasise their embeddedness in human rights, and put forward the mantra that no one should be left behind. This starting point is an important change from the approach followed under the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were more concerned with aggregate gains, than with reaching the most disadvantaged. If this approach results in a closer alignment of the two frameworks and a concerted effort by development actors to reach the furthest behind first, the results could be significant – particularly for groups such as the stateless - whose inter-generational disadvantage has left them further behind than most. However, this will not happen automatically, and requires a great transfer and sharing of expertise as well as ongoing collaboration between those working on different issues (human rights, migration, statelessness etc.) and development experts. Now is an extremely important moment to be having this discussion and promoting stronger inter-sectional collaboration. ‘Statelessness actors’ must be among those getting involved in the discourse and influencing the shape of development priorities, programming and implementation.
This chapter brings together a series of essays and other contributions which show how statelessness actors have started getting involved in the development discourse, through the initiative and leadership of various individuals and organisations. Importantly, ISI hopes that the contents of this chapter will serve to inspire more statelessness actors to engage the development sector, as it will introduce development actors to the issues and challenges pertaining to statelessness that can and must be addressed through the Sustainable Development Agenda. The chapter begins with adapted excerpts of the Institute’s Background Paper on “Statelessness, Development and the Human Rights Agenda”. This paper, which informed an Expert Roundtable in early 2017 on this issue, serves as a point of departure for a sustained discourse between the human rights, development and statelessness sectors. It aims, in particular, to highlight overlaps, grey areas and points of tension between these frameworks in order to promote a human rights based approach to development which is fully inclusive of the stateless. One of the main challenges that statelessness will pose to the development sector, is that it requires states to include within their priorities and plans, the development needs of communities that have historically been disadvantaged and excluded and have had their belonging disputed. The short essay that follows by Helen Brunt introduces us to one such community – the Sama Dilaut – a migratory semi-nomadic group who have for generations inhabited the seas of Southeast Asia. By providing a short overview of the manner in which this group has been disenfranchised by multiple states, and setting this against the human rights and development challenges they face, Brunt’s essay provides clear insight into how difficult the task at hand can be.
Having thus set the context, the next two essays look more closely at the SDG Framework and what it has to offer. The first, by Laura Bingham and Betsy Apple of Open Society Justice Initiative, argues that the SDGs provide an opportunity to leave no stateless child behind. It contends that the emphasis given by the SDGs to addressing structural injustices, through SDGs 10 (reducing inequality) and 16 (justice, good governance, and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies), “represents a sea change from the last set of global development goals, and provides a crucial platform for advocacy, action, and outreach toward some of the world’s most marginalised peoples, including those who are stateless.” The essay proceeds to provide some good examples of national advocacy efforts which have utilised the SDGs to promote the rights of stateless persons, showing how the framework can be effectively used. The next essay, by Tendayi Bloom – lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University in the UK – takes a more critical approach. She highlights various challenges and points of tension which will have to be addressed if stateless children are to truly benefit from the SDGs, but also sets out ways in which these challenges can be met.
The chapter then moves on to focus on the SDG which is perhaps the most relevant to stateless children: SDG 16.9 which aims to “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration”. As set out elsewhere in this report, birth registration is an important tool to address statelessness, and the SDGs are perhaps the most important programme for the achievement of universal birth registration. In an insightful essay, Bronwen Manby - an independent consultant and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics Centre for the Study of Human Rights – deconstructs the notion of ‘legal identity’, arguing that the SDG understanding of this concept is a very limited one. She looks at how this target complements UNHCR’s campaign to end statelessness and Action 7 (birth registration) of its 10-point action plan. While acknowledging that universal birth registration in itself is not a solution to statelessness (a stateless person may have had his or her birth registered but this had no bearing on the acquisition of a nationality), Manby argues that registering births can reduce the risk of statelessness faced by many. She does also point to a potential risk of registration – without addressing structural discrimination – leading to more statelessness: an important concern that must be seriously taken on board. Next we have a short reflection by Anne-Sophie Lois of Plan International, which presents the role played by Plan in promoting birth registration around the world, and strengthening international norms on birth registration (including through the SDGs). This is followed by three short profiles of children and their families, who have been positively impacted by the birth registration work of Plan International. Finally, the chapter closes with a contribution from Semegnish Asfaw of the World Council of Churches, which looks at the role that the church (and other religious institutions) can play in the addressing childhood statelessness through registering important life moments such as births and baptisms.