Understanding Statelessness: “What connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein?”

Three weeks ago I attended the First Global Forum on Statelessness, which was held in the beautiful location of the Peace Palace in The Hague. More than 300 participants from 70 different countries came together to discuss a topic which has always received limited attention in spite of its global nature. I am neither an academic, nor I did represent a specific organisation at the Forum. More so, I am genuinely interested in the issue of statelessness, and I would like to turn this passion into a career.

In case you are not familiar with the concept of statelessness, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons gives the following definition: “a person who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law” (Article 1). The absence of a legal bond of nationality between a person and a State leaves individuals particularly vulnerable to human rights violations and discrimination. Statelessness is a condition which affects more than 10 million people worldwide and it occurs for a variety of reasons. You can read more about this issue in an article I wrote for IWB last June (Statelessness: what is it and how does the international community address the issue? –

http://issueswithoutborders.com/?p=409). However, what I would like to talk about here is how I became so passionate about this topic, and to discuss why statelessness is an issue which deserves more attention from academics, governments and civil society.

Although I have always been interested in researching human rights, about one year ago I came across a question which aroused my curiosity even more:

“What connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein?”

Reading those three names in one single sentence is beyond a doubt bizarre; one would think they have no connection at all. However, all three represent different ways in which people can be affected by statelessness. Osama Bin Laden was stripped of his Saudi Arabian nationality in the 1990s in response to his criticism of the regime ruling at that time. Albert Einstein, on the other hand, was stateless for five years after renouncing his German nationality at the end of the 19th century. The third name, however, requires a clarification: Tom Hanks is not himself a stateless person, but in the movie The Terminal he played the role of Victor Navorski, a man whose state breaks up, leaving him stateless. As a result, he is stuck at JFK Airport and forced to live there for nine months. The story of Victor Navorski explains how a person can find himself suddenly stateless without knowing that is happening and without having done anything to cause this. (What connects Tom Hanks, Osama Bin Laden and Albert Einstein? –


“Currently, you are a citizen of nowhere… You don’t qualify for asylum, refugee status, temporary protective status, humanitarian parole, or non-immigration work travel. You don’t qualify for any of these. You are at this time simply… unacceptable.”

A quotation from a movie can be quite powerful. These few lines perfectly illustrate the condition and the status of millions of stateless persons: citizens of nowhere, or ‘Nowhere People’ – which is also the title of an amazing photo exhibition on statelessness of the award-winning photographer Greg Constantine (You can see the photos and find out about Greg Constantine’s work here: Nowhere People – www.nowherepeople.org).

The Global Forum has been a unique opportunity for bringing together experts on statelessness from all around the world in one room, explore new dimensions of the issue and discuss it from many angles. Some stateless and formerly stateless persons were able to attend the Forum and share their experiences with all the participants. Listening to their stories and the many obstacles they had to face, and still have to face day by day, has been a touching moment which, I’m sure, left a mark in all of us in that room. I wish everyone could hear the stories of these people to understand the terrible impact statelessness has on the life of individuals. The Forum has been an inspiration for me as well as many others to keep researching and raising awareness on statelessness, and advocate for change in policies and practices of governments and international organisations. Still much needs to be done to solve the issue of statelessness, but seeing so many academics and representatives of governments and international agencies exploring this theme, trying to answer fundamental questions on the topic and raising new ones is an important step forward to give statelessness the attention it deserves.

“To be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of worldliness; it is like returning to a wilderness as cavemen or savages…they could live and die without leaving any trace.”

Hannah Arendt


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on 6 October 2014

3 persons shared their opinion! Join the discussion!

  • Patricia Papuc said on Reply

    Thanks for your article Serena.

    You say at the beggining of your article that you attended the First Global Forum on Statelessness. My question is how was this issue tackled before this year?

    And why has this campaign been launched now? What has made NGOs to raise awareness about this issues, because as far as I know this problem has been around, since the concept of state has been invented.

  • Mihai Ganea said on Reply

    Congratulations on the nice article! I have also studied this matter during my studies and was at the same time scandalized and fascinated by it. It is not only a proof that our system has imperfections, but also an alarm signal that our “modern society” cannot really adjust to the “unknown”. The situation in Estonia is a very good example for this matter and takes it all one step further: Are you protected if your own state takes your “citizenship status” away? There have been some rulings by the European Court of Justice on this matter, rulings which prohibit National States of stripping citizens of their “European Citizenship”. Yet, to some extent, this only applies to citizens of European countries, since the European citizenship implies that a person is a citizen of a country of the European Union. The matter is controversial and real, effective solutions have not been found yet.

  • Serena said on Reply

    Thank you guys for your comments. To give an answer to Patricia, the issue has been studied for years from academics and addressed from civil society, international agencies and governments, althugh it was interesting to see all of them gathered to discuss the issue from many point of views. The campaign has been launched now because during the past few years the interest in statelessness had an unprecedented growth. It’s the right moment to act.

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