In September 2012, Berlina Celsa, a nine-year-old child in the Dominican Republic, was raped and murdered. The man charged with the crime was ordered to pay a small fee to secure release from jail. When Berlina’s lawyer protested the miniscule bond amount, the judge said it was appropriate because Berlina did not exist – that she did not exist legally because she was stateless. At the time she was born, Berlina was a legal citizen; however, in 2010 the government amended its nationality law and applied it retroactively, denationalising thousands of people born to parents who were not legally residing in the state at the time of the birth. Berlina’s story is one among many examples of statelessness which can be found among 12 million stateless people around the world.
The growing number of stateless people is neither a temporary problem nor the random product of chance events. It is the predictable consequence of human rights abuses, the result of decisions made by individuals who wield power over people’s lives. Discrimination and statelessness live side by side; it is no coincidence that most stateless people belong to racial, linguistic and religious minorities.
We the participants of an international consultation organised by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches (CCIA /WCC) on “Towards an Ecumenical Advocacy on the Rights of Stateless People”, made up of representatives from the WCC member constituencies, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), international organisations, civil society organisations, social and human rights activists, and policy makers, have heard stories of the plight of the stateless people in different parts of the world. We came together in Washington DC, USA from 26 February to 1 March 2013 for this international consultation of CCIA hosted by the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA).
We have gathered together to assess the situation of stateless people including those who have been stranded and confined to refugee camps over several generations, to explore ways of bringing the issue of statelessness into focus as a part of global ecumenical advocacy, especially in the context of the forthcoming 10th Assembly of the WCC to be held in Busan, Korea, and to initiate discussions through a Public Issue Statement on the Human Rights of Stateless People. We also have explored ways of seeking to influence policies at the global, regional and national levels by projecting a Christian perspective rooted in ethical responses and evolving ecumenical advocacy strategies to address the concerns of stateless people worldwide.
We affirm these cardinal universal principles and values: that every person has the right to life, liberty and security. Every person has the right to education, the right to equal protection of the law, the right not to be enslaved and to be free from torture. Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to opinion and expression. Every person has the right to nationality. Stateless persons are denied all of these rights. To be stateless is to be without nationality or citizenship. The United Nations 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons sets out the definition of a stateless person as one “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”
The UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million people in the world who are stateless and many more are at risk of becoming stateless. Statelessness can occur as a result of one or more complex factors including political change, differences in the laws between countries, laws relating to marriage and birth registration, the transfer of territory and targeted discrimination often due to race, ethnicity, gender or religion.
The impact of statelessness is manifold, lack of access to viable employment and education, the disintegration of families, and denial of basic necessities of life. Stateless persons may consider themselves as citizens of nowhere and therefore people without value. This notion of being invisible leads to a debilitating sense of worthlessness and desperation, to higher incidences of addiction, violence and suicide, all of which subject stateless people to exploitation in such forms as human trafficking, kidnapping etc. As a result of their plight, many stateless persons are forced to cross international borders and become refugees.
Jesus Christ, in his teaching ministry, linked the command to love God with all one's heart (Deuteronomy 6:5) with the command to love one's neighbour as oneself (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:33). By placing these two commands in immediate juxtaposition, Jesus asks us to understand each in light of the other. This is a consistent trend throughout the gospels and also the writings of St Paul; as he writes to the Galatians: "Through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself'." (Galatians 5:13-14). The ways we love our neighbour reveal the authenticity of our faith in God in the most concrete terms (1 John 3:16-18).
In the story of the last judgment, the Son of Man, the King, the shepherd, the Son of the Father, the exalted Lord identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners of all times and all nations. He bestows the ultimate dignity upon the destitute and marginalised by giving himself to them and being unreservedly identified with them. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In word and in deed, Jesus takes to himself, in a very special way, the ill and the sinners, the despised and the abandoned, and treats them as his equals, making their cause his own. So too, he says now that whatever was done to the helpless was done to him.
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. Humanitarian conduct is an essential part of the gospel. The commandment of love, the greatest commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ, is to love God and to love one another.
Living in communion with God is sustained, nourished and actualised in the church by hearing and proclaiming God’s word, the sharing of the body and blood of Christ, and a life of active compassion and care towards the disenfranchised. Caring for stateless women, men, boys and girls, the refugees and marginalised people is a sacramental act that unites Christians with God, since God has identified with them and demands we serve with acts of justice, compassion and care. God is with them as God is in the liturgy, and in the proclamation of the gospel.
The issue of statelessness must be addressed in a comprehensive manner. The states must confer citizenship to prevent and reduce statelessness and protect the basic human rights of citizens and stateless people alike. Faith communities, civil societies, NGO’s and stateless persons will work together to advocate for the remedy and prevention of future statelessness. It is within the power of God the creator, the God of salvation and the Spirit of God that infuses us, to bring justice and peace to stateless persons.
* This is the full communique issued at the end of the World Council of Churches consultation on stateless people held in Washington DC from from 27 February to 1 March 2013.
* More on the consultation: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/9617
(c) WCC 2013. The World Council of Churches (http://www.oikoumene.org/) "promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world". An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.