Laura van Waas and Ottoline Spearman
For the approximately 15 million stateless people worldwide – who already endure discrimination and denial of basic rights and services – the harm caused by statelessness during the pandemic has risen to an unprecedented level. Being stateless is akin to having a pre-existing medical condition, in the sense that stateless people are already facing many challenges that are now compounded by the pandemic. The stateless are used to being invisible, excluded and marginalised, and this invisibility both catalyses and reinforces structural discrimination and unequal treatment. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has observed, ‘the right to a nationality is a fundamental human right, and in this time of crisis it can mean the difference between life or death’.
There is a deep systemic bias in states’ policy responses to COVID-19 (or any crisis, for that matter) which puts citizens first. Citizens are the first to be targeted for public information messages; the first to access healthcare services and PPE; the first to benefit from emergency relief or economic support packages. The effect of this approach is devastating for stateless people. For example, since many healthcare systems are based upon nationality, stateless people may be denied access or forced to pay fees they cannot afford. At the same time, the insecure legal status of stateless people often forces them to live on the fringes of society, with many living in close quarters without adequate housing or hygiene facilities – conditions that are conducive to the fast spread of the virus. If restrictions on access to medical assistance based on citizenship or legal status are not lifted during the pandemic, including when vaccination programmes become feasible, stateless people will struggle to receive treatment. This will not only seriously endanger their lives, but also the lives of others. As Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, explains: ‘social, political and legal inclusion, including of stateless communities, are public health imperatives – never more so than during a global pandemic, when the cost of exclusion is measured in human lives.’
The approximately 4,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis in Bangladesh, who live in urban ‘refugee’ camps, are one population for whom the impact of the pandemic is especially hard-hitting. Deprived of their nationality when Bangladesh became independent, the Biharis were subsequently granted citizenship, but many still face barriers in accessing documentation to establish their nationality. ‘Our community faces a lot of discrimination and we are being denied healthcare because of this,’ says community leader and advocate, Khalid Hussain. ‘[We] are not even getting basic government relief. Our people cannot socially distance, and we are not allowed into hospitals, once they know where we are from.’
In other places, the relationship between the state and the stateless is not one of invisibility, but one of targeted persecution. As the fault lines of racism, xenophobia, patriarchy and intolerance deepen during this time of crisis, stateless minorities and migrants are more likely to be blamed and scapegoated as the virus spreads. In Malaysia, for example, undocumented migrants, including stateless people, have been rounded up and detained, with COVID-19 cited as an excuse. ‘For fear of being arrested and mistreated, the already marginalised stateless communities are now scared to go out to purchase their groceries, let alone access other basic emergency healthcare assistance’, says Maalini Ramalo of NGO DHRRA Malaysia. Where the pandemic is fuelling xenophobic and racist rhetoric, the impacts on stateless people increase, and the intensified ‘othering’ of certain groups may also lead to new cases of denial or deprivation of nationality.
The ability of states and the international community to deal effectively with the global health threat and its wider fall-out for the economy, peace and security is bound up in the ability to include everyone, just as a successful humanitarian response relies on reaching everyone on the basis of need. Yet, statelessness has historically been a blind spot for human rights actors, donors and the public alike. Without urgent and sustained intervention, the stateless, as well as those whose nationality is under threat and those who are denied equal nationality rights, will continue to be excluded. The UN’s Inter-Agency Working Group on Statelessness may be well placed to address this by producing guidance on COVID-19 and statelessness, akin to the guidance issued by other UN bodies in relation to migrants or people with disabilities.
As the pandemic compounds pre-existing discrimination, it also lays bare the need for deeper-rooted reform. In light of this, 84 civil society organisations issued a joint statement demanding that key stakeholders (including governments, UN agencies and others) take both immediate and longer-term action in order to promote a rights-based, inclusive and non-discriminatory response to COVID-19, based on the premise that no one – including the stateless – should be left behind.
|Laura van Waas is Co-Director at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, the first and only NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at a global level.|
|Ottoline Spearman is COVID-19 Response Focal Point at the Institute on Statelessnesss and Inclusion, the first and only NGO dedicated to working on statelessness at a global level.|