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Statelessness: The Story of President Saakashvili And Another 12 Million People

Last week, newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, restored Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship, who had been stateless for two years. How did this happen?

Mikheil Saakashvili is the former president of Georgia of ten years and was later appointed governor of Odessa, a south-coast region in Ukraine. Having led the “Rose Revolution” in 2003 against Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili changed the course of history in Georgia, severing the ex-Soviet country’s relationship with Russia. He is known for his trademark incisive rhetoric and is credited for a series of fundamental pro-European reforms. However, following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, parts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were lost to Russian control and Saakashvili was eventually ousted from his own country.

Saakashvili gave up his native Georgian citizenship in 2015 implying politically motivated imprisonment threats from the Georgian authorities. As a result, Petro Poroshenko – Ukraine’s previous president – granted him the citizenship of Ukraine and appointed him as the governor of the Odessa region. However, two years later, Saakashvili joined the opposition’s criticism against Poroshenko on corruption claims, who later stripped him of his citizenship and ordered his deportation. Saakashvili became stateless and took refuge in the Netherlands, where his wife is from. On May 28th, 2019, his citizenship was restored by presidential decree signed by Zelensky – a former comedian elected as president of Ukraine in May, who had risen to fame in a popular TV series playing a professor who became president overnight and fought the oligarchs in Ukraine, portraying Poroshenko as one of them.

In an epic turn of events, Saakashvili becomes a prime example of how someone can become stateless – and reverse its course – for political reasons. Yet this is the story of just one of the 12 million people around the world whom the UN recognise as being stateless.

What Does It Mean to be Stateless?

A stateless person refers to someone who isn’t recognised as a national by any country. As of November 2018, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) disclosed that around 12 million people around the world remain stateless. While there is a lack of comprehensive information about statelessness, the largest populations can be found in Myanmar, Cote d’Ivore, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Iraq and Kuwait.

Even though Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has a right to a nationality, in many parts of the world, it’s hard to reinforce this. So what exactly causes someone to become stateless?

Racial or Gender Discrimination

One of the leading causes of statelessness is discrimination – whether racial or gendered. While a few nations have adapted their laws to achieve parity between men and women, around 25 countries in the world still have biased legislation when it comes to gender. This means that, in many places, if a woman was to give birth and the father was either absent or dead, the mother wouldn’t be permitted to pass down her citizenship to her child.

The Rohingya crisis is an example of another kind of discrimination that has led to high rates of statelessness and displacement. The people of Rohingya are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group located in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Laws, the country doesn’t recognise the Rohingya people as one of the indigenous races and thus continues to deny them citizenship, marking them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. This level of discrimination led to the 2016 Rohingya crisis described by many as a form of ethnic cleansing.

State Succession: Lost in New Laws

State succession can also lead to statelessness. When one state dissolves and another one is created in its place, it is usually hard to create nationality laws that protect all the citizens affected. A notable example of this is the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the break-up of Yugoslavia, which left many citizens erased under new laws. Nowadays, there are still thousands of citizens in Europe, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, who are still not recognised under a nationality.

The creation of Israel after the period of British Mandate is another illustration of state succession leading to mass-scale statelessness. Palestinians who resided in the region no longer had citizenship, nor were they categorised as solely Palestinian anymore. A scholar, Abbas Shiblak, projected that over half of the Palestinians in the world are stateless.

Administration Difficulties: 12 Years in A Parisian Airport

Another reason why statelessness might occur could be something as simple as administrative issues. This could mean anything from qualifying for citizenship but not being able to undergo the necessary steps due to high expenses of owning the right documents – such as a birth certificate. An example of this is the unusual case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who was on his way to start a life in the UK but lost his documents after his briefcase was stolen. Although Nasseri wasn’t permitted into the UK, he was sent back to France where he wasn’t allowed entrance into the country. Nasseri spent close to twenty years living in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris after becoming stateless.

How Does Statelessness Affect People?

Statelessness affects access to basic human rights such as education, healthcare, employment, social welfare and many other socio-economic rights. Without proper documentation, those who are stateless cannot benefit from the same advantages that most of us enjoy. This means never being able to access adequate medical care, never being able to work safely and even have highly restricted freedom of movement. The lack of advantages leads to those who are stateless not being able to progress in life, the same way that many others can, triggering scores of impoverished communities unable to move forward. But statelessness can also affect those from high income backgrounds and their cases are generally isolated, intricate and even harder to solve.

How Are Things Changing?

Statelessness isn’t restricted to any part of the world, with one third of those who are stateless being children. The UNHCR, under the framework of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Reduction of Statelessness, has committed itself to supporting refugees and those who are stateless. In 2014, the UNHCR announced its global campaign to end statelessness by 2024. The campaign highlights ten actions to focus on, such as making sure that no child is born stateless, removing gender bias from legislation and guaranteeing certificates of birth to reduce administrative issues.

While largely publicised cases such as Saakashvili’s have a chance of coming to a resolution, some high-profile individuals are still trapped between political persecution and statelessness so as not to exacerbate their already delicate circumstances. Many of them perceive citizenship by investment, otherwise abbreviated as CBI, as a dignified and secure solution to legally acquire citizenship for the entire family in exchange for an economic contribution to the state that has such a programme in place. There are just over a dozen CBI programmes in the world whose benefits as well as requirements differ, but the ones considered the most reliable have strong due diligence checks in place to ensure that the applicants under consideration are of good moral standing. The number of individuals who resort to CBI as a “Plan B” for their safety continues to rise every year, especially in regions affected by or on the verge of instability.