Picturing Statelessness

By Maureen Lynch

What does statelessness look like?  It’s not easy to succinctly explain the plight of the millions of people who have no legal ties to any government.  For years I have struggled to identify a one-word metaphor to illustrate this widely unknown and generally overlooked human rights problem. Today I found one.

In nature, a wide array of physical characteristics and techniques are used to survive.  Among the creatures of the ocean floor is one with particularly amazing instincts.  It is able to hide in plain sight and has an interesting collection of ways to find and disable its targets.  Statelessness is like … an octopus.

I know it’s a bit of a bizarre metaphor, but such a complex issue requires out-of-the-box thinking.  Let me explain.

Under water, a large octopus can render itself practically invisible.  Similarly, statelessness remains a largely hidden issue.  Few people are aware that statelessness is a global problem of immense proportions as well as a local phenomenon having serious implications for the exercise of human rights that affects more than 12 million people worldwide.

The octopus has eight long tentacles that allow it to extend its grasp into even the deepest reef pockets.  The extent of statelessness is also far-reaching, present in every corner of the globe.  In fact, no region is untouched.  The largest number of stateless persons is found in Asia and the Middle East.

To escape or become virtually invisible, an octopus will release a black, ink-like substance that creates a distracting and formidable cloud.  Administrative “ink,” or the lack of it in some cases, put people in legal limbo and is one of the many causes of statelessness.  A shift in political leadership in a country, expulsion of people from a territory, discrimination, determination of nationality based solely on descent, and laws regulating marriage and birth registration have created whole groups of virtually invisible people.

Octopus arms can squeeze the life out of other animals.  Statelessness sucks the life from those it affects.  Being stateless means having no legal protection or right to participate in political processes, inadequate access to health care and education, poor employment prospects and poverty, travel restrictions, social exclusion, little opportunity to own property, vulnerability to trafficking or harassment, and even a shorter than average lifespan.  One stateless man described his plight as like being "buried alive."

And those little suction cups an octopus has …well, once set into action are not easy to remove.  Stateless people too are stuck in seemingly unsolvable and protracted situations.  In Bangladesh, for example, the Urdu-speaking minority (also known as the Bihari and stranded Pakistanis) had been stateless since 1971.  Stateless for 37 years!  Thankfully, after a series of legal precedents, in May 2008 they were recognized by a High Court judgment as citizens of the country. 

Success stories, such as in Bangladesh, as well as the unchanged and ongoing predicament of countless others, are detailed in Refugees International’s new report Nationality Rights for All:  A Progress Report and Global Survey on Statelessness. With this report, we aim to expand understanding of the problem of statelessness, increase recognition of the right to nationality, and promote solutions to prevent and reduce statelessness. 

Octopi also have keen eyesight, are highly intelligent, and possess three hearts-- three qualities which, if applied by governments with stateless populations, would go a long way toward ending statelessness around the world. 


The Octopus

Thank you for the very apt metaphor. It does remind me very much of how situational poverty can so easily become generational.