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Statelessness and the Right to Belong – Dr Jelka Zorn

The issue of statelessness concerns the right to belong and the right to have rights. The right to belong is connected not only to an individual’s dignity, but also to political and social rights, and as such can be decisive for pure survival. The situation of statelessness would therefore seem contrary to the general aim of the modern states: if we understand the source of legitimacy of state power as lying in the creation of conditions for the reproduction of life and welfare, then, from the perspective of the state, statelessness seems an illogical situation – why would the state want to deliberately oppress individuals and their families, depriving them of rights normally distributed within society? And why would the state place some people outside of the protection of the law?

“The stateless person, without right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly transgress the law,”1 wrote Hanna Arendt more than 60 years ago in her critical analysis of the nation-state concept. And if we agree with Arendt that “the nation-state cannot exist once the principle of equality before the law has broken down,”2 we can see that the situation of statelessness reveals fragility of the modern states’ foundational principles.

The decisive question when considering statelessness is its definition: who to define as a stateless person? Sociological or anthropological definitions are usually wider (more inclusive) than legal; considering parameters of the former, the question arises if asylum seekers and undocumented migrants can also be defined as stateless persons since their right to stay and work in the territory where they actually live is constrained and their experience of exclusion similar to those without any citizenship whatsoever. If we see them as de facto (not necessary de jure) stateless persons then we are confronted with dramatical numbers of statelessness across European Union, the world’s region known to be most advanced in the application of human rights.

Estimates published in the report requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs3 are that between 1.9 and 3.8 million people residing on the territory of the EU lack an inclusive legal status (either citizenship, refuge or alien status).

In the case of de facto stateless persons, such as asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, we are confronted with rather horrifying institution of the camp – in our case a detention and deportation centre. Looking historically the camp was developed as an exception from the normal legal rule to protect the society from an alleged danger, as presented, for example, by political opponents and later refugees, Jews and other undesirables of the pre-war Europe. It is a place where executive power, the police, dominates or is even exclusive; therefore no wonder that non-citizens in general are quickly perceived as a matter of the police.

How and by whom this oppressive structure of exclusion can be undermined? Can an outlaw – someone whose opinion and experiences are not part of the universal – emancipate himself or herself? Can his or her process of emancipation undermine the persistence of the camp and consequently redefine the right to belong and consequently influence the constant production of statelessness?

As with other social institutions, changes towards political and social membership come not only from the top down, but also from grassroots movements, unionization of workers and international human rights agencies. Their endeavours influence practice and legislation and can thus gradually undermine or even conceptually transform the rigours state criteria of membership. However these processes are slow and mirror social justice in being a permanently unfinished project.

About Dr Jelka Zorn

Dr Jelka Zorn
Dr. Jelka Zorn is senior lecturer at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Faculty of Social Work. She has published on the issues of statelessness, especially in the case of the erased, the group of denationalised citizens after the break-up of Yugoslavia. She has been also involved in their struggle to raise public awareness on the issue and win justice.

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