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A Long Way from Home

Charting the rise of stateless populations

Statelessness: A Modern History by Mira L. Siegelberg. Harvard University Press, 336 pages.

If you were to charter a boat southwest from Hawaii toward Australia, you would pass by clusters of what are known in development-speak as SIDS, or Small Island Developing States. They are predominant in the South Pacific as well as the Caribbean: flecks of land encircled by copper blue water, where it’s easy to imagine a life of ease and unchanging rhythms—providing you haven’t spent enough time on one of these islands to know how the clock ticks there.

SIDS will be the first of the world’s states to go underwater. They are low-lying, and their populations and development tend to concentrate along the coastlines. Many of them are poor. Kiribati, among the most imperiled of the SIDS, is made up of thirty-three islets dotted across more than a million square miles of ocean. In terms of spread, it is one of the world’s largest nations, but its average elevation is barely six feet above water. Upper estimates for sea-level rise by 2100 sit at around six feet; in a literal sense, there will be little safe ground to retreat to when the already thinning borders of sand are breached. Add to that changes in sea temperatures, declining fish stocks, and extreme weather conditions, and it becomes apparent that climate change will spare none of Kiribati’s inhabitants.

And so they will have to leave. Should you survive to the year 2100 and once again charter a boat southwest from Hawaii, many of the islands you pass by will very likely be shrunken and deserted, unable to support human life. Perhaps you won’t need to wait that long. The displacement of island populations due to climate change will not be as rapid and concentrated as that produced by the great wars of our age, but its human cost will be vast. Kiribati is currently home to one hundred fifteen thousand people. The Maldives, another low-lying SIDS, has a population of more than half a million. Only one of its one thousand two hundred or so islands has a high point of eight feet. Maldivians, too, will soon have to leave.

Any study of the modern-day crisis of statelessness must take as pivotal the events of the First World War.

Other islands in the Asia-Pacific, perhaps in the Philippines or Indonesian archipelagos, may also become uninhabitable as the sea rises. But their populations will at least have the option of moving to safer ground elsewhere in their country, thereby retaining their citizenship and everything it affords. I-Kiribati, as the islanders are known, have no such protection. Having gained independence from Britain in 1979, their country purchased a twenty square kilometer “overspill” portion of land in Fiji some years back in preparation for the eventuality of rising waters, but there are serious doubts as to how many people could move there, and how secure their livelihoods would be. At present, then, the nation is sinking. When independent Kiribati is lost, so, too, will the I-Kiribati lose their nationality.

Anxiety over the fate of the several million people currently stateless around the world, and the many more who will join in decades to come, haunts Mira L. Siegelberg’s Statelessness: A Modern History. “In the likely not so distant future,” she writes in the book’s conclusion, “when whole nations. . . become submerged, the dispossessed population would not under current regimes enjoy the protection of any government.” In mapping the genealogy of statelessness, Siegelberg details the carving up of the modern world into tightly bounded nation-states, membership to which confers protections that are otherwise denied to the politically homeless. That process should offer clues as to how this next century might play out. “The boundaries of states are breaking down in new ways,” she writes. “Forced migration is inextricable from this process.”

Modern states as we know them are a product of the reconfiguring of notions of statehood and sovereignty that, many theorists argue, began with the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. It took on a new force—and new parameters—in the early twentieth century, as empires collapsed and more discrete political units emerged. As such, the timeframe of Siegelberg’s book is necessarily condensed, even as her study of statelessness and its treatment in international law is deep.

Statelessness only became a serious legal concern when states en masse began to take forms that better allowed for marking out citizens from non-citizens: fixed, clearly demarcated borders; culturally contiguous populations (or so their leaders might wish); a single ruling authority. Compared to these rather modern characteristics, prior epochs saw more fluid displays of territorial compression and expansion. From the Habsburg Empire to the Abyssinian Empire, imperial elites, monarchs, and religious authorities continually sought to extend boundaries, in the process actively subsuming populations of varying ethnicity. As frontiers moved frequently, it was common for those who stayed put to belong to different states at different times, or sometimes to none at all. Those who moved between territories—traders, nomads, refugees fleeing conflict and famine—tended to face scrutiny of their fealty to rulers rather than to a nebulous “national culture.” For the most part they were spared the eager, small-minded testing of their “suitability” that has become so pervasive in the migrant experience today.

Any study of the modern-day crisis of statelessness must take as pivotal the events of the First World War. It was only two months after its end that Max Weber gave his famed lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” in which he outlined what has become perhaps the canonical definition of the new state form that crystalized in the wake of Europe’s fracturing. In previous eras, Weber wrote, law-making tended to be the domain of a range of “associations” whose authoritative strength varied depending on the context. These might be clan systems, private armies, city-state authorities; they might be the monarchy or the church. But the advent of the war, an event of such magnitude that it demanded an all-state response from combatants, required that the legitimate use of force be wrested from these associations. In this way, the control of people and the levers of power became centralized under one authority.

The war marked the point at which the contemporary nation-state form began to dominate in Europe, which is the geographical focus of Siegelberg’s book. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Armenian Genocide, and other crises of that era left millions without a home, prompting a refinement of the systems that surveyed these moving populations. Passports might have existed in various forms for two millennia, but they only become obligatory for international travel during the war years. For those lucky enough to still belong to a state after the war, they provided both safety in passage and proof of national belonging, acquiring unsurpassed value as nationality became the defining source of identification. But their popularity was not universal. Vladimir Nabokov, holder of a Nansen passport—the first internationally recognized refugee travel document, issued to stateless persons after 1922—considered them a “dreary hell devised by European bureaucrats.” But those without even that privilege came to scorn the disenfranchisement that the absence of a passport signaled.

The proliferation of states asserting absolute sovereignty following the Second World War effectively calcified the nation-state order that we know today.

The war also launched a century of legal arguments over how to view—and what to do with—the millions of people who found themselves without a country they could call home. Siegelberg’s command of the complex arguments and events that shaped the modern-day discourse on statelessness is impressive. We see how European courts wrangled over this emergent category as the war and its accompanying revolutions in Russia, Germany, and elsewhere prompted the redrawing of borders and the dispersal of millions of people across the continent. Gandhi considered Europe’s mass of stateless persons indicative of the decline of European civilization and the imprudent model of statehood established there. Hannah Arendt, whose own flight from Nazi Germany left her stateless, saw the denigration of the stateless as emblematic of the breakdown of the nineteenth-century ideal of civic emancipation, and the emergence in its place of a framework in which basic rights could only be secured through membership in a political community.

Legal arguments began to center on whether the authority of international law could be expanded to take under its purview the protection of the stateless. That coincided with a postwar turn to internationalism, one that took spirited form in the birth of the League of Nations in 1919 but also, with the rise of expansionist fascist administrations, a diabolical turn. Accompanying these developments was the bigger question of whether the state could be dislodged as the central subject of international politics. “The more one looked,” Siegelberg writes,

the more evident it seemed that states were not the only actors on the international scene. The fact remained that one could find confederacies, federations, protectorates, spheres of influence, suzerainties, and self-governing dominions, all of which flew in the face of the orthodox theory that all territory in the world resides under the exclusive sovereignty of some sovereign state.

The proliferation of states asserting absolute sovereignty following the Second World War effectively calcified the nation-state order that we know today. Yet Siegelberg problematizes the belief that this was inevitable. Historians and political theorists, she notes, have “begun to recover how ideas of collective self-determination, sovereignty, political representation, and democratic self-rule were conceptualized in a range of ways” across the twentieth century. In doing so they counter the assumption that the nation-state model dominated the political geography of the twentieth century to the extent that it overwhelmed all other forms of political organization. Rather, it was only in the 1960s that federations, protectorates, extraterritorial enclaves, and other complex polities “gave way to a more homogenized political map of the world.” These alternative visions of political life compel us, she argues, to question “how the modern state became the dominant form of political organization in the period after the Second World War.”

Activists outside the Kiribati Parliament. |

Where does this leave the global stateless, now and in the century to come? Siegelberg leaves that question open, and perhaps for good reason: forecasting the future from the mess of the current political era may be unwise. Yet there are glimmers of optimism in both the past and present. As time goes on it is clear that the global stateless are not silent; formal politics is not, and has never been, the only sphere in which rights are fought for and realized. Thanks to the greater interconnectedness of our world, stateless communities have lobbying power, and they can still, to a point, organize—Palestinians, Rohingya, and Tibetans are but three examples. Siegelberg also takes issue with Arendt’s fixation on the emptiness of “natural rights,” those a human should possess merely by dint of being human, but whose hollowness was, so the philosopher argued, evidenced by the mass disenfranchisements of the twentieth century. This preoccupation missed the smaller achievements. Stateless persons were, in some notable cases, able to assert their legal capacity, absent a national protectorate, through private law actions like contracts and torts.

They also had perhaps the finest legal mind of the twentieth century fighting in their corner.  Hersch Lauterpacht, whose work at the Nuremberg Tribunals was pivotal in enshrining the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in international law, also sought to reshape international legal frameworks so that they could defend the stateless against the many forces ranged against them. Such endeavors have, however, had limited success. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness prohibits states from withdrawing the citizenship of nationals when doing so would render them stateless. But it was only last year that the Tory government in Britain, a signatory to the Convention, stripped Shamima Begum of her citizenship after the London schoolgirl of Bangladeshi heritage joined ISIS in 2015. The British government argued that Bangladesh could take care of her; Bangladesh, unsurprisingly, refused, and in this way, she, too, entered the political wilderness.

Statelessness, unsurprisingly, is inextricably bound up with inequality.

Begum’s is an individual case. More ominous, however, is the way in which the crisis is self-producing. Each year, seventy thousand children are born into statelessness, many of them in refugee camps to stateless parents. The 1961 Convention requires that their country of birth grant them citizenship if not doing so would leave them without the protections it ostensibly affords, but well over half of states are not parties to the 1961 Convention and are therefore not bound by its rules. International law lacks the reach to protect the world’s most vulnerable from this fate. 

The growing number of stateless people globally is evidence enough of the fact that the political frameworks in which citizenship is realized and safeguarded remain largely unchanged. Unless, of course, you have enough wealth and status. Siegelberg cites the journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, who has argued that financial elites are already inhabiting a post-national world in which passports can be purchased and the recipient’s wealth parked—often tax-free—in a new country. The strength of a national border is thus not absolute; it will yield to whom it so desires. Statelessness, unsurprisingly, is inextricably bound up with inequality.

This last point makes the matter of sinking states all the more pressing, and Siegelberg’s important study ends with a nod to an ominous future. The first nations that will go beneath the waves are among the poorest in the world; their people will not have the means to buy a new nationality. It is therefore true that something unprecedented in modern legal and political history looms. Who will take the people whose country has literally disappeared? They may well have a strong claim to asylum—it could be that their government ceases to exist, and, therefore, so does its protection mandate—but the decision of another state to welcome them is invariably hindered by local politics. Conflicting opinion over the risks faced by asylum-seekers should they return home adds a further layer of complication. In January, for instance, the UN passed a resolution making it unlawful for governments to return climate refugees to their countries, but  it declined to overturn a prior ruling by a UN committee against the asylum claim of a farmworker from Kiribati on the basis that it considered his life not to be in imminent danger.

The matter doesn’t end there. Even if asylum is granted, what becomes of the past and future identities of those it is granted to? Will the I-Kiribati have to stop being I-Kiribati and become Australian, or Indonesian, or wherever else they make landfall? Is their national identity to be, in effect, canceled? “In a new era of climate change and mass migration, what will be the definition of statehood, and who will decide?” Siegelberg asks. “Are disappearing states a new kind of subject under international law? Does territory remain one of the fundamental features of statehood?”

Maybe the state model, already weakened, won’t survive for long, in which case it is a matter not so much of reengineering international law but of imagining new political forms that decouple citizenship from territory. As the writer Rana Dasgupta has noted, citizenship functions today as “an extreme form of inherited property.” With 97 percent of citizenship inherited, “the essential horizons of life on this planet are already determined at birth.”

The isolationist behaviors on display across the western world today manifest as attempts to reify an international order in which absolute sovereignty is paramount.

Whatever reimagining is needed had therefore better be done quickly. The durability of the global order that emerged from the ruins of two world wars does not, from the vantage point of today, look altogether secure. Deregulated finance; global financial institutions; the intensification of corporate power; frequent eruptions of intrastate ethno-religious violence; remote warfare technologies; even, some have argued, the return of company-states—these all point to the fact that the independence of states, and the monopoly on power that their rulers appear to enjoy, is being undermined, both from within and without.

Yet the decline of the state model is being firmly resisted. The isolationist behaviors on display across the western world today manifest as attempts to reify an international order in which absolute sovereignty is paramount. As nation-states crumble, nationalist-minded leaders—and we now count the United States and United Kingdom alongside the predictable crop of states in retreat—find more justification for fortifying borders. The United States, European nations, Australia, and elsewhere may once have provided sanctuary for the stateless of the modern age. But as our world of supposed greater connectedness atomizes, they can hardly be considered dependable providers of new homes.