Here’s What It’s Like to Be Stateless

When whistleblower Edward Snowden gave his first interview to American media in May, one of his chief laments was that, with his passport deactivated and threat of jail time in the United States, he had turned into a stateless person. From his apartment in Moscow, where he is neither a citizen nor allowed to stay any longer than his visa can be renewed, he claimed he simply has no viable place to go.

As a complaint, Snowden’s lament is sad. But in context, Snowden, in a secure apartment in a developed capital city, has it far better than others. According to the United Nations and its refugee arm, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 10 million people worldwide. This amounts to a new stateless baby born every 10 minutes. They’re born with no country, no documentation, little social support, and hardly any opportunity to advance.

Statelessness is a simple concept, although the causes are less clear. Sometimes war and conflict drive people from their homes. Other countries with poor social institutions can’t provide the paperwork or documents needed to travel abroad. One on hand, stateless people tend not to be charged taxes. They’re frequently exempt from unfair regulations or things like military drafts. Yet living off government rolls also deprives them from protection under the law, leaving them susceptible to abuse and under threat of being deported—to where isn’t always clear.

More than a third of the stateless are children, a statistic the U.N. hopes will encourage countries to deal with the stateless among them. By 2025, the organization hopes to eliminate statelessness entirely, from 10 million to zero. It’s not as easy as just granting status and distributing passports. One primary hurdle is compiling accurate numbers of stateless people, an inherent challenge with people living in the shadows. Persuading countries to grant legal status—as President Obama is expected to do this month for five million immigrants in the U.S. illegally—can become a political question subject to legislative debate and the will of voters.

As with any condition of a large group of people, the solution lies primarily in economics. How are countries supposed to deal with additional people that can destabilize economies and social services when added too quickly? Nearly 82 countries have subscribed to a U.N. convention that makes babies born on a country’s soil, no matter where there parents are from, instantly citizens. That same baby can’t be persecuted any differently from other illegal immigrants, nor can she be stripped of money or property. Eighty two countries is a start, the U.N. points out. But when measured against all countries, the number is still less than half.