How Being Stateless Makes You Poor

In today's world, a lack of citizenship isn't just a political problem — it's also an economic one.

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For the first 24 years of his life, third-generation Palestinian refugee Waseem Khrtabeel rarely noticed any difference between himself and his Syrian neighbors. Like his parents, Khrtabeel was born and raised in Damascus. He speaks with a distinct Syrian accent, just like that of his many Syrian friends. But Khrtabeel is not like other Syrians. He’s stateless.

The first time Khrtabeel, 30, grasped the magnitude of that word was in early 2010, after graduating from Damascus University with a mechanical engineering degree. Khrtabeel was elated when he secured an interview with the Saudi Binladin Group, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent construction companies. On an unseasonably warm day in January, he arrived at the company’s recruiting office in southwestern Damascus promptly at 2 p.m., energized and confident.

He was shown the door less than seven minutes later. After exchanging pleasantries, the Syrian recruiter asked Khrtabeel about his background. When the word “Palestine” escaped his lips, the recruiter interrupted, swiftly shutting down the interview. Binladin does not hire Palestinians, he said, offering hollow apologies.

“I still remember that day. It was the first day I was shocked, like ‘I am Palestinian, so I am not like other people,’” said Khrtabeel, a small-statured, wiry man with dark, somber eyes. “There is no justice. I graduated from university; I have the same experience as my friends — but I have fewer chances to [improve myself] or find a job.”

An estimated 10 to 15 million people around the world are stifled by the denial of privileges and protections that are afforded to citizens. The legal and political travails of stateless people are well known — many don’t have the right to vote, travel, own property, or move about freely. Access to basic health care and education is sparse. But one of the most debilitating (and rarely acknowledged) effects of statelessness is chronic economic instability. Without the legal right to work, the stateless find few avenues for upward mobility, leaving generation after generation to toil in poverty and obscurity — at the expense of both individuals and the states that host them.

Often lacking government-issued identification, stateless people are typically excluded from the formal labor market and relegated to unemployment or under-the-table work. As a result, the labor they must undertake often pays less, offers little job security, and can be dangerous and exploitative: the persecuted Rohingya minority in Burma, for instance, have been forced into unpaid military conscription. The desperately poor parents of stateless Hill Tribe children in Thailand have sold their kin into trafficking, ignorant of the slavery, prostitution, and abuse that await them. As Khrtabeel’s story demonstrates, even stateless people who have identification suffer widespread societal discrimination that limits their ability to find stable employment. As it turns out, some of the most pernicious consequences of statelessness have little to do with official state policies or geopolitical considerations. More often it’s a matter, pure and simple, of discrimination at the hands of ordinary people.

In 2011, the U.S. State Department commissioned Middlesex University professor Brad Blitz, a leading expert on statelessness, to undertake the first study aimed at quantifying the economic cost of being stateless. After investigating the livelihoods of 980 stateless, formerly stateless, and citizen households in Kenya, Bangladesh, Slovenia, and Sri Lanka, Blitz’s team concluded that statelessness decreases both household income and spending by 34 percent, and home ownership by 60 percent.

“These people are behind — and they’re behind because of existing patterns of societal discrimination. That’s what keeps them in these situations of poverty,” said Blitz.

Blitz warns that the refugee crisis will exacerbate statelessness: “These children who are in protracted situations of displacement need the help, need the education — and time matters.”

Eager to avoid Syria’s mandatory military conscription in the midst of a civil war, Khrtabeel sought work everywhere from the Gulf states to Africa. He was met only with rejection. Finally, in 2012, Khrtabeel found engineering work in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the stateless Kurds could commiserate with his troubles. Khrtabeel found the city uninspiring, but doubted he would find work elsewhere — so he stayed for three and a half years, until the encroaching terror of the Islamic State stalled the construction industry and Khrtabeel was forced to flee.

After an arduous three-week journey to Europe and 65 days spent in Dutch camps, Khrtabeel now lives in Haarlem, a small, scenic city an hour west of Amsterdam. He spends his days in a classroom taking intensive Dutch courses in hopes of improving his job prospects. He presents his Netherlands-issued I.D. card with pride, pointing out his clearly marked nationality status: staatloos.

Khrtabeel speaks to his parents, who remain in Damascus, every day: “Every time my mom asks me, ‘When will you take me there?’ I have to say, ‘Soon, when I get a job.’” Khrtabeel is doing his best to forge a stable life in his new surroundings, but years of economic discrimination plague him. 

“We know from existing research that to be stateless means that it’s harder to go to school” said Laura van Waas, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, an NGO based in the Netherlands. “It’s harder to complete school and get a diploma. It’s harder to work in the legal, public sector. It’s harder or impossible to own property, register a business, buy a car, and get a mobile phone contract.”

Although van Waas assumes the economic disempowerment of stateless populations comes at a cost to national economies, she said it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of damage done due lack of research.

She’s right about that. Currently there’s virtually no serious scholarly scrutiny of  the toll statelessness takes on a country’s economy. Without the right to legally work, the stateless do little to contribute to formal economies via employment, taxes, and discretionary spending. The drain of these destitute populations may manifest in little more than a dent in the economies of large countries. But for a small state like Brunei, which has a population of under half a million and over 20,000 stateless people within its borders, awarding them citizenship could lead to a marked improvement in GDP. Studies on naturalizing undocumented migrants in the U.S. seem to support this hypothesis.

Meanwhile, the stateless continue to dwell in the shadows — even in notoriously inclusive countries like Canada, where multiculturalism is embraced as a way of life and where refugees have been welcomed with open arms.

Qia Gunster was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1996 to a young American woman who failed to register his birth. After 18 months of motherhood, she realized that she wasn’t ready to be a single parent. She decided to bring her child to McBride, a 586-person community in British Colombia, Canada, where she had friends she trusted. She crossed the border illegally to avoid questions from the authorities and left her child with Eric Gunster, an acquaintance who raised Qia alongside his family. Her act of negligence after his birth sealed her son’s fate as an outsider — one whose childhood, adolescence, and young adult life would be blighted by discrimination.

Gunster, 20, has spent his life fighting to fit into a society determined to ignore his very existence. Without government-issued I.D., he couldn’t legally work, drive, apply for a credit card, or go to a bar with his friends. Gunster was forced to adopt a thick-skinned resourcefulness, earning the money he lives on through under-the-table labor ranging from tree planting to electrical work.

“No company will hire you without a driver’s license. You can’t imagine how hard it is, trying to get a job,” said Gunster, who feels wholly Canadian, and speaks with an unmistakable Western Canada twang. “If I was to go somewhere and apply for a job and they were to say, ‘No, we won’t take you because you’re black, or because you’re a woman,’ it would be all over the news, and that’d be the worst thing imaginable. But if you’re stateless and you’re born into a situation you have no control over, it’s OK to discriminate.”

After a hard-fought battle abetted by a great deal of local media attention, Canada’s immigration authority finally granted Gunster permanent resident status in mid-March. He must wait another four years to apply for citizenship, despite the fact that he has lived in the country all of his life. His biggest problem now, he said, is dealing with “resentment.”

“When I’m not allowed to function in society the way that they want me to, the only path in life for me to be able to survive is anything illegal,” he said dryly. “It’s definitely more than a physical battle — you know, finding a job — it’s definitely a huge mental battle, because it totally changes your perspective on life.”

The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations last September aim to “provide legal identity for all” by 2030. It’s a valiant aim, but most countries continue to neglect the “invisible people” within their borders, refusing to collect data, let alone assign government-issued I.D. Only a few thousand stateless people across the world have identification cards acknowledging their status, according to statelessness researcher Bronwen Manby. The first step towards alleviating discrimination against non-citizens would be issuing widespread identification, thereby allowing them legal entry to the formal labor market — a move that would prove financially advantageous to both the stateless and the state.

However, this assumes that states want to solve the problem. The worst offenders — states that intentionally exclude subsets of their population — vehemently deny or ignore the presence of these vulnerable people for political reasons. It has proven difficult for outsiders to push for reforms without infringing on these states’ right to sovereignty.

Even if widespread policy aimed at integrating the stateless into mainstream society is adopted, it will take decades to wipe out the prejudice that haunts people like Gunster and Khrtabeel.

“It’s really tough to start your life three times. I deserve to…” Khrtabeel’s voice breaks. His transparent expressions betray a gamut of emotions, volleying between exasperation and despair. “If I was a normal guy, I think I would be in a different situation now, because I worked hard in Damascus, and in Erbil, and have to work hard here — three times. If I combined them into one city, I would be in a totally different place.”

Khrtabeel no longer sees his stateless status as a hindrance in the job market. Now that he is safe in the Netherlands, it’s a psychological issue he has to grapple with on his own.

“I feel from inside that we are not complete people,” said Khrtabeel, his tone at once defeated and defiant. “I will not bring another generation of our family [into the world] to suffer more.”

In the photo, stateless Kuwaiti men from the Bidoon community sit around a fire in the ‘jungle’ migrant and refugee camp in Calais, northern France, on February 19.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

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