Statelessness Research Paper

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A state, or more broadly in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, a nation-state, comprises a population living on a delineated territory with internationally respected boundaries and under a state apparatus whose prime and most distinguishing characteristic is the monopoly of violence. This definition follows that of Max Weber, whose original 1922 formulation of the monopoly of Gewaltsamkeit (physical violence) implies a potential use of that violence. At best a state carries international and internal legitimacy and thus is widely respected.

Stateless people are without legally enforceable claims to any internationally recognized state. The “host states” usually withhold the supply of public goods like security, law and defense from stateless people, at least to some extent. People can be or become stateless, i.e., are not recognized as belonging to a specific territory that meets the initially stated requirements. Stateless persons may be registered as nonnational residents, foreigners or categorized as nationals of another state even when that state does not accept them as nationals and thus will not protect them.

On the other hand, they might have advantages in avoiding taxes and the military draft.

The United Nations, early in 2006, reported 2,381,900 stateless people around the world, which was more than a 50 percent increase over 2005. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, and that the actual number may be much higher, of even more than 11 million stateless people.

Four broad categories emerge: first, people that never were taken care of in their own state or that never have raised such claims. These are mostly members of small ethnic tribes living at a subsistence level, such as natives of the Amazonas region or the Pygmies of Africa. Frequently, these people were driven into their current settlement areas by more powerful contenders (e.g., Brazilian settlers or colonists in South Africa). In cases like the Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand, the new conquering state eventually granted them passports.

Second, people lose their attachment to their state for temporary reasons such as external conquest or internal strife, epidemic diseases or natural catastrophes. They may still have their personal documents but their state territory may not be accessible for them due to the given reasons. Losing personal documents in these situations makes claims for return even more difficult.

Third, a state may have ceased to exist due to external subjugation or exhaustion of the soil. This either forces the indigenous population to become (second-class or slave) citizens of the new state as, e.g., under Mongolian rule, leads to their annihilation in that territory, as with most of the Jews after Titus’ victory in the first Jewish-Roman War (66-73 ce), or forces them abroad. If the new state will be widely recognized internationally, the third category of stateless people merges to refugees who carry no longer internationally recognized documents.

In cases of state collapse (Rotberg 2004) citizens may still carry a passport but have no state authority to protect them. A partial recovery of a state as in Lebanon or sort of a foreign protectorate is one of the possible outcomes here, as in Somalia on the part of the Ethiopian govern-ernment in 2007, as is the permanent intermingling of internal and external ethnic divisions (Carment and James 2004).

There is a fourth category of people who cannot guarantee their economic survival in their home state, throw away all their documents (Sans-Papieres) to avoid sanctioning on the part of the recipient states, and try to enter another state illegally as a refugee. From these four basic categories many more combinations can be derived, in particular with respect to forms of diaspora (Shain and Sherman 1998).

The lower the level of development in the lost or given up territory, the fewer and less recognized the documents and skills of these refugees, the harder the economic consequences for them in having to accept Lumpenproletariat jobs in their new states. Their status of illegal (and often unwanted) immigrants is permanently insecure. The numbers of these immigrants swell (now a sizable nine-digit figure), the larger the persistence of the North-South divide (Mediterranean connex, influx from Mexico, and mutatis mutandis of the Chinese in Eastern Russia). In general, the somatic and psychic illnesses are severe among these exile-driven people, even though a sizeable portion of this group is composed of rather robust and resilient young men. Their success for integration into a new culture depends on family networks and middlemen-minorities helping out with jobs and shelters, and, last but not least, on the pull-effects a generous and highly-developed welfare-state exerts on citizens of underdeveloped economies.

There can be vast overlap between these four categories of stateless people. The first dividing line is whether these individuals possess a valid passport. Otherwise the likelihood diminishes rapidly that any state will claim these people. There is also a small numbers effect here making for more benevolent reactions on the part of recipient states. Sometimes, e.g., with the Vietnamese boat-people or the Algerian Harkis, this is an offspring of joint fighting in an external war. Thus, there is a two-dimensional space formed by the dimension of passport-ownership (yes, restricted in various degrees, no) and the dimension of a claiming/recipient state (yes, with restrictions, no). The matter becomes more complicated when some family or clan members of an ethnic group that does not have its own state, like the Roma or the Kurds, live with their passport-owning brethren. A continuum of severity, or in a different terminology: a property space of legality and legitimacy, stretches from (1) no passsport and no-state-claim people (like the Bushmen) via (2) (restricted) passport-ownership and no state claim (German Jews driven into exile under Nazi rule), (3) the lack of a passport, but a claiming state (e.g., tourists abroad in a catastrophe like the tsunami of 2004) to the (4) full protection of a passport and a claiming state.

In any case, a claiming state is more important for ultimate safety than possession of a formal passport. In that respect, emphasis has been duly laid on a functioning state apparatus as a variable in its own (Linz and Stepan 1996).

As to Kurdish and Palestinian refugees, it is not only their stronger “host” states that do not concede a joint state for the across-border population. The major powers of the world in this power rivalry, above all the United States, turn down claims for an independent state on the historically claimed territory.

Under conditions of globalization with workers and tourists seeing the world, the need for shelter in a home state with its guaranteed jurisdiction becomes even more important, paradoxically the more often the boundary of one’s own state is crossed. The risks intensify for children born and raised in a third country that has not issued a passport to either parent.


  1. Carment, David, and Patrick James. 2004. Third-Party States in Ethnic Conflict: Identifying the Domestic Determinants of Intervention. In Ethnic Conflict and International Politics: Explaining Diffusion and Escalation, eds. Steven E. Lobell and Philip Mauceri, 11–34. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Diamond, Jared M. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.
  3. Linz, Juan J. and Alfred Stepan. 1996. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. Rotberg, Robert I., ed. 2004. When States Fail: Causes and Consequences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Shain, Yossi, and Martin Sherman. 1998. Dynamics of Disintegration: Diaspora, Secession and the Paradox of Nation-States. Nations and Nationalism 4 (3): 321–346.
  6. Weber, Max. [1922] 1964. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Studienausgabe. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch.

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