- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Article 15 of the Universal Declarion of Human Rights declares that "Everyone has the right to a nationality." But all the same, as many as 12 million people around the world are not a citizens of any country. According to the UNHCR:
Among the causes of statelessness for these individuals are that their countries have dissolved and they have not acquired citizenship in any of the successor states, or there are incompatibilities between different legal regimes that have left them with out a nationality. In other cases, statelessness may be the result of discriminatory laws or practices or in some cases even punitive or malevolent treatment.
A new report from the agency looks at statelessness in the United States. Though there are no solid statistics on the total stateless population, between 2005 and 2010 around 628 stateless people applied to the U.S. asylum court and around 1,087 presented themselves as stateless in immigration courts. Stateless people in the United States are generally former Soviet citizens who never obtained citizenship in any of the new states, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, Eritreans who came to the U.S. as Ethiopian citizens, or Palestinians born in other Middle Eastern countries.
As a signatory to the 1954 U.N. convention on statelessness, the U.S. cannot legally expel stateless people "save on grounds of national security or public order." But, for a variety of reasons, many are also unable to obtain citizenship, leaving them in permanent legal limbo. The UNHCR is pushing for U.S. immigration authorities to create special procedures to help stateless people obtain citizenship, apart from the normal asylum system.
There are also some downright bizarre cases, such as Mikhail Sebastian — featured in the video above — who has been stuck in American Samoa since December, 2011. Sebastian is an ethnic Armenian born in then-Soviet Azerbaijan, who came to the U.S. fleeing ethnic violence and anti-gay discrimination in 1995, without ever having established citizenship in any of the new post-Soviet states. After he overstayed his visa, U.S. authorities reluctantly allowed him to remain in California with the warning that if he left the United States, he would be unable to return. But on a trip to American Samoa last year — Sebastian’s travel options are limited — he inadvertantly took a side trip to independent Western Samoa, leading U.S. authorities to say he had self-deported and refusing to allow him to fly back to the mainland. His weeklong tropical vacation has turned into a year-long Kafkaesque nightmare.
Statelessness may be rare in the United States — and stories like Sebastian’s are notable mostly because they’re so out of the ordinary — but it’s still a reminder of how dangerous life without a passport in a world of nation-states can be.