Guest post by Juliana da Penha, freelance journalist and community worker developing various projects with migrant communities in Italy and Scotland. She holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights and International Politics at Glasgow University. Juliana is on twitter at @ju_penha_br.

Review of Understanding Statelessness, by Tendayi Bloom, Katherine Tonkiss and Philipe Cole (eds.) (Routledge, 2017).

Imagine that your basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment or freedom of movement are denied. Even to get married or to register your children is impossible and you face the daily threat of being detained or deported. These are some of the many barriers that over 10 million stateless persons globally and at least 600.000 in Europe face on a daily basis. To be stateless is to not be recognized as a citizen by any state. It is a legal abnormality that often prevents people from accessing fundamental rights. Statelessness leads to invisibility, and as a result, the people affected become vulnerable to human rights abuses and marginalization.

This publication Understanding Statelessness highlights the complexities of this issue, examines the causes and consequences of statelessness, and proposes some productive answers to alleviating the situation of stateless people throughout the world. Edited by political science and international studies scholars Tendayi Bloom and Philip Cole, and sociologist Katherine Tonkiss, this book presents an extensive examination of statelessness by an impressive range of researchers, lawyers, academics and authors, employing a vast array of political and legal concepts in different geographical contexts where statelessness occurs. Their combination of interdisciplinary approaches that also draw upon the work of visual artists for the understanding of the experiences of stateless persons has resulted in the book’s originality.

Readers are introduced to the difficult and multifaced situation of statelessness through 16 theoretical and empirical chapters, separated in three parts that each provide critical examinations of the main obstacles that stateless populations face.

The first part of the book is dedicated to discussing the definition of statelessness as a concept, as well the causes, symptoms, contexts and the state of the research in this field. One of the key discussions in this publication is the significance of nationality as an essential requirement for the enjoyment of basic human rights. Due to the lack of this basic prerequisite, stateless populations face systematic discrimination and oppression. However, as demonstrated by international human rights scholar Lindsey N. Kingston in the opening chapter, the acquisition of legal nationality alone will not ensure stateless people’s access to human rights. Rather, she claims that individuals must have legal status as well as a “functioning citizenship” – an “active and mutually beneficial relationship with a government” that allows for full political membership and access to fundamental rights (Kingston 2014).  She argues that “statelessness is both a cause and symptom of human rights abuses and marginalization” and “a multi-faceted plan is necessary for alleviating the harms of statelessness.” (p.29)

The second part of the book discusses the challenges that statelessness presents for governments and stateless populations in different geographical contexts. The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) presents some of the highest levels of statelessness worldwide (p.87).

In chapter 6, Zahra Al Barazi, the co-founder and senior researcher at the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion  and Jason Tucker postdoctoral researcher focusing on the indefinite statelessness of refugees in Denmark and Sweden, discusses the causes and consequences of statelessness in this region. Together, they demonstrate that history, nation-state formation, state succession and discriminatory policies that exclude certain groups on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and gender are factors that contribute to the creation of statelessness. In addition, the authors highlight that the isolation of various social groups and the disunity in the region pose a significant challenge for the MENA countries. (p.88)

The last part of the book is dedicated to offer a response to statelessness, drawing from different theoretical reflections on the position of statelessness within political theory. In her chapter, legal scholar Katja Swider, illustrates with case studies the tensions between two approaches to addressing the issue: the reduction of statelessness and the protection of stateless persons. She argues that it “is important to prioritize the identification and protection of stateless persons over the elimination of statelessness” criticizing citizenship acquisition as the principal remedy for the problems associated with statelessness. (p.206)

One of the many interesting analyses in this book is made of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) ten-year campaign #IBelong, to end statelessness by 2024. In 2014 the UNHCR, which has a mandate to address the situation of stateless persons, launched this initiative aiming to improve data on statelessness and a better overview on how statelessness impacts human rights and development. International politics scholar Kelly Staples re-examines in her chapter, the theoretical approaches to UNHCR action on statelessness and argues that this action, “prioritizes tackling it through its eradication, rather than through ensuring access to legal rights by stateless persons.” (p.192)

Under the final picture of the book, all of the arguments of the book’s authors are distilled in a simple caption: “for the authorities, he does not exist”. In the image, we see a family from Macedonia living in limbo in Italy at an informal camp settlement. Since the father’s birth has never been registered in any country, he in very practical terms does not exist for the authorities. The impossibility of getting legally married, of registering their children’s births, a recurrent cycle of the father’s detentions and releases, and constant threats of deportation are only some of the many battles this family faces. Unfortunately, their children will inherit this cycle of exclusion and marginalization as stateless people themselves.

I found the expert analysis brought to this challenging situation of statelessness by the 18 contributors highly stimulating. It is my impression, however, that for those who have a basic knowledge of this topic, this book may sound vast. Nevertheless, it is fundamental reading for graduates and scholars of migration, human rights, political theory, law and international development. The effort of the editors and authors to bring an exceptional publication on such an important topic deserves praise. This book is thought-provoking and worthy of reading especially for those who are interested in deepening their knowledge of the many contexts and conditions of statelessness.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

da Penha, J. (2019) Book Review: Understanding Statelessness. Available at: (Accessed [date])