Statelessness & the Least of These: Nationality, Identity, and When You Have Neither

A week ago I boarded a flight from DC to Amsterdam to head to the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on Statelessness and the First Global Forum on Statelessness where participants from over 70 countries were present. We had booked a flight, made sure I had a place to stay, and I quickly packed about 2 hours before leaving for the week long trip. The organizers of the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on Statelessness knew I was coming but other than the airline and the hostel, the Netherlands was unaware of my imminent arrival as was the US of my departure. Though unannounced I sailed through passport control barely breaking my stride.

While as an Anabaptist/Church of the Brethren variety of Christian I am rather ambivalent concerning nationality and the notion of national identity this ease of border crossing (and my presumption that they will let me back in upon arrival in DC) is a level of assurance that is, well, assuring. This is, however, far from universal experience.

The two conferences I have been attending, both the WCC’s consultation and the First Global Forum on Statelessness, deal with people on precisely the opposite end of the spectrum. It is estimated that there are more than 10 million people throughout the world that are stateless. By stateless we mean they are without a nationality and without the benefits that this typically confers. People can be de jure or de facto stateless. The former is when a person is legally without a nationality and the latter is when someone is unable to effectively establish their nationality or whose nationality is either disputed or ineffective.

Nate WCC-Stateless-Hague

Director Nate Hosler with other World Council of Churches participants

Some discussion around statelessness focuses on the lack of identity that people feel. During this part of the discussion is where I feel some ambivalence. As a follower of Jesus, in whom “there is no Jew or Greek” and presumably no American, Canadian, or Nigerian, I hold that the nation-state is not the locus of identity. So while I don’t wish to under value people’s sense of displacement I find the lack of national identity a less poignant of the many concerns bound up in statelessness.

Much discussion however, focuses on those communities and individuals who suffer severely from neglect and active repression. At the WCC consultation we were visited by Imon Khan. He was part of the Rohyinga ethnic minority in Myanmar. In 1982 a change in citizenship laws rendered thousands of Rohyinga stateless. Iman was one of those who ended up in Bangladesh stateless. Eventually after both parents died and someone convinced him that he would easily find a job in the Netherlands he paid a smuggler to get him to Amsterdam.

Upon arrival he was alternately conned out of his money and pushed to the streets. When he visited the consultation he wore a hat pulled low. In addition to telling his story he said he suffered from high blood pressure from the anxiety and uncertainty. Eventually throughout the afternoon and evening he spent with the group he removed his hat and began to relax. Upon leaving he said that this was the first time in his 26 year life that he felt like people had treated him like a human. While I don’t want to over analyze this brief encounter it illustrates the double component of lack of identity and belonging as well as the risk and deprivation that stateless persons experience.

In hopes of helping people like Imon, we drafted a statement affirming the the WCC’s 10th Assembly statement adopted last year on statelessness and recommending ways in which we as member churches can begin or continue to address statelessness in our corners of the world. The statement we released this week set our theological commitments alongside the problem before moving on to concrete recommendations

  • “The underlying theological assumption of active concern for those who are suffering is the belief that all people created by God constitute an inextricable unity. Solidarity and compassion are virtues that all Christians are called to practice, regardless of their possessions, as signs of their Christian discipleship. Compassion and care for one another and acknowledging the image of God in all humanity is at the core of our Christian identity and an expression of Christian discipleship.”
  • “These biblical and theological bases motivate us as churches and Christian bodies to express our Christian commitment and to be engaged in our prophetic witness to speak for the rights of those who are voiceless and marginalized as stateless people.”—(Full Statement Here)

As I board the plane tomorrow and make the journey home I will certainly be thinking about the many things I heard and remembering the many people I met. More importantly, however, I will be reflecting on the ways the Office of Public Witness can bring the issue of statelessness and the people affected into our work.

In Christ’s Peace,

Nate Hosler
(nhosler@brethren.org)

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