On October 30, 2009, policymakers, advocates, and academics gathered at the Georgetown Law Center to learn about and discuss statelessness, a term used to describe individuals who lack citizenship in any country.

The Challenges of Statelessness, a conference co-sponsored by Refugee Council, USA and Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute, focused on what can be done to both reduce the numbers of stateless individuals and alleviate the difficulties those individuals face in their day-to-day lives.

Statelessness has two primary causes: direct discrimination and structural inadequacies. Direct discrimination results in statelessness when a state deprives certain minorities of citizenship for political reasons, or when people are displaced from and rejected by their country. Structural inadequacies that lead to statelessness include unregistered births and a woman’s inability in certain countries to pass their citizenship to offspring. Although there is no global data on statelessness, an estimated 12 to 15 million individuals currently have no citizenship.

Statelessness is a serious problem affecting every aspect of daily life. Stateless individuals have no access to employment, schools, health care, police protection, or other public services. They cannot move about let alone leave their countries.

Dr. Brad Blitz, Professor of Human and Political Geography at Kingston University in London and founder and Director of the International Observatory on Statelessness, gave the conference’s keynote address. He provided an introduction to statelessness, including its causes and effects, and discussed his recent research on the topic. In his address, Dr. Blitz also challenged a common misconception that stateless individuals are structurally powerless, citing examples of stateless individuals setting agendas for reform in their countries and successfully organizing and advocating for the rights of their communities. For example, elders from the Nubian community in Kenya, where Nubians are not granted citizenship, brought their case before the High Court of Kenya and the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Now the elders report that most Nubians in Kenya have been granted national identification cards.

Throughout the morning, experts discussed current efforts to combat statelessness through policy, advocacy, and legal initiatives. Mark Manley, head of the Statelessness Unit at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), James Goldstone, Executive Director of Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), and Julia Harrington, Senior Legal Officer for Equality and Citizenship at OSJI, discussed possible legal remedies for statelessness. These include legal action at both the local and regional levels, where some stateless groups, such as the Nubians discussed by Dr. Blitz, have been successful in gaining recognition of citizenship.

Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, spoke about the U.S. government’s role in dealing with statelessness. He identified four State Department policy objectives: to raise awareness about the issue; to encourage strong action by the UNHCR; to use diplomacy to mobilize other governments to address statelessness; and to target specific situations of statelessness. Secretary Schwartz also actively solicited advice from the audience about how the State Department can best address statelessness, including identifying the most important current issues.

The afternoon session took on a more personal focus. A slideshow of photographs of stateless individuals throughout Asia was displayed, followed by a discussion with Tatianna Lesnikova, who spoke about her experience as a stateless individual in the United States. Experienced human rights practitioners concluded the conference by presenting information about the current status of various stateless groups, including the Kurds in Syria, Haitians in the Dominican Republic, Roma in Europe, and Rohingya in Thailand.

The conference resulted in dynamic interaction between policy makers, representatives from major human rights NGOs, human rights practitioners, and academics.