A Bangladeshi border guard taking the names of Rohingya men who had arrived on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river from Myanmar

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

A Bangladeshi border guard taking the names of Rohingya men who had arrived on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river from Myanmar, October 2017

If all the stateless people on earth were to form a nation, its population would exceed that of Sweden, Greece, Azerbaijan, or New York City—possibly by a large margin. Some 10 million people worldwide lack citizenship, according to the United Nations, which makes them exceptionally difficult to count. Those not recognized by any state tend to be left off censuses, benefit rolls, and other official registers. Governments have few incentives to acknowledge the stateless residents within their borders. Stateless people do not elect officials, enjoy diplomatic representation, or possess the lucre of a corporate lobby. Without political rights they can exert only so much pressure; activist groups, charities, and NGOs are their main source of support.

This makes people without a citizenship uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination: without an ID, it’s hard to find work, let alone decent work at a fair wage. And the problem is hereditary. In Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, for instance, stateless families known as bidoon, or “without,” have made up a permanent underclass for generations simply because their ancestors weren’t counted in state censuses in the 1950s and 1960s, or because a grandparent failed to secure the right documentation when settling on one side of a newly drawn border. Others have been stripped of their citizenship: Bahrain has denaturalized close to nine hundred people since 2012 for reasons ranging from human rights activism to alleged terrorism.

In addition to those deprived of citizenship, there are also millions of people worldwide who are eligible for it but never procure proof. The legal difference between, say, a stateless Emirati and a Honduran worker without a valid US visa is that it is more complicated to deport a stateless person. Without the appropriate documentation to cross international borders or a homeland to return to, they are stuck where they are with nowhere to go.

Stateless populations are also subject to state violence. Consider what happened to the German Jews demoted from “full” citizens to “second-class” residents by the Reichstag in 1935, or those denationalized outright by a second citizenship law in 1941. Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, which has been officially marginalized since a 1982 law categorized them as “resident foreigners,” has likewise suffered relentless, lethal assaults from the country’s armed forces; many genocide survivors remain in legal limbo on the border with Bangladesh.

It’s possible to become stateless by accident, by being born in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong person. That’s because birthright citizenship is a rarity outside North America, and because national status has typically been inherited patrilineally—a practice that persists in twenty-seven countries. Stephan Faris, an editor at Politico and the author of Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration (2014), has written eloquently about his close brush with statelessness. Faris was born in 1973 in Switzerland, to a Canadian mother who could not at the time pass down her status from abroad, and an American father born in Montreal. “To qualify me for American citizenship,” Faris writes, his father “had to prove that either he or at least one of his parents was a citizen and had spent at least ten years in the US. If he hadn’t been able to, I could have begun my life officially stateless.”

These days, it is much more common for stateless people to be deliberately disenfranchised by the country where they feel they belong. This happened on a large scale in the Dominican Republic in 2013, when a racist law stripped some 200,000 citizens of Haitian origin (that is, darker-skinned citizens) of their Dominican status. Because many of these people had been in the DR their whole lives, they had no connection, legal or emotional, to Haiti. And the other side of the border wasn’t their “home” either. A presidential decree has since rolled back some of the 2013 restrictions, but thousands of people still don’t know where they belong.

Historically, large numbers of people have suddenly found themselves stateless when a country experiences a revolution, loses land, or ceases to exist completely. As Mira Siegelberg, a historian at the University of Cambridge, writes in Statelessness: A Modern History, the shifting borders of crumbling empires made statelessness a front-page problem in the early twentieth century. Her story begins after the Bolshevik Revolution, when thousands of Russians fled to neighboring Europe. As exiles, they did not enjoy the protection of the regime abroad, and they could not safely return to their homeland. Armenians and Assyrians expelled from the Ottoman Empire faced a similar predicament. But international lawyers, intellectuals, and the newly formed League of Nation’s High Commission for Refugees took a great interest in their plight. That was in part because many of these lawyers were exiles themselves, but also because the phenomenon pointed to something much bigger than people whose papers were not in order.


“The implications of mass statelessness…for wider debates about empire, sovereignty, and the future of global order could not be ignored,” Siegelberg writes. “Rather than compelling a stricter definition of statehood, the stateless represented the possibility of life beyond the state when a wide array of publics began to rethink the possibilities for political organization” in the form of protectorates, city-states, federations, and even corporations.

Siegelberg’s book is the first to consider the evolution of statelessness as a legal, humanitarian, and philosophical matter. It’s an essential contribution to scholarship on the subject, and it could not appear at a more fitting time. Through her original research and rigorous analysis, Siegelberg reveals the way stateless people, once personifications of the cracks in the international system, came to be regarded as administrative anomalies—even as their numbers kept on, and keep on, growing.

To understand the emergence of legal statelessness and how public attitudes toward it have changed, Siegelberg takes us back to the early twentieth century, when sprawling dynastic empires and monarchies broke up into smaller states representing different nationalities: Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, and so on. These countries did not always welcome certain ethnic or religious groups—Jews, for one, perpetually found themselves left out, as did the Roma—but since states, not their friends or neighbors, decided who belonged, there wasn’t much that foreign powers or international organizations could do about it.

Statelessness thus challenged conventional relationships between people, governments, and law: What did it mean to have people without citizenship? In the early decades of the twentieth century, jurists asked if the stateless might make a convincing case that individuals are the bearers of rights and duties because of their humanity, not the accidental circumstances of their birth. They wondered if individuals could become direct subjects of international law, even without being recognized as members of a nation, and what this might mean for legal nonpersons, like corporations. Later, they discussed whether nations could be somehow compelled to make people citizens by a supranational or intergovernmental body.

But first, they had to define the legal condition of statelessness; although “it may appear to be merely a matter of logical necessity that when no country recognizes you as a citizen, you are a person of no nationality,” Siegelberg’s book reminds us that it isn’t usually so simple.

For a country to accept an alien’s professed statelessness in a legal sense, it must necessarily recognize the legitimacy of another country’s citizenship laws. Siegelberg uses the case of Max Stoeck, a businessman living in London at the turn of the twentieth century, to illustrate these tensions. Stoeck was a typical “citizen of nowhere”: a polyglot entrepreneur of Prussian birth who emigrated to London by way of Belgium to seek his fortune marketing electric lamps. He never tried to become British, since he could travel between his homes as he pleased, but that all changed when World War I broke out and transformed him overnight “from cosmopolitan business agent to enemy alien.”

Though he had been effectively without a nationality since he applied for papers relieving him of his military duties as a German at the age of twenty-three, nobody had bothered him about it, and he was not moved to formally declare himself stateless until the British government seized his property, dissolved his marriage, and ultimately interned him for belonging to an enemy nation during the war. His case (along with many similar ones) was heard before the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice in London; Stoeck’s goal was to become recognized as stateless rather than as an enemy alien.

The government’s lawyers argued that to accept that Stoeck was not a German national would break with precedent: after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Great Britain had refused to recognize the statelessness of Romania’s Jewish population, reasoning, Siegelberg writes, that “to tolerate the existence of people disconnected from any political community appeared as a moral failing and a legal impossibility.” But Stoeck’s attorneys successfully convinced the judge that his legal connection to the German Empire had long lapsed (the Germans even confirmed it), and that there was a mutual obligation for countries—even those at war—to recognize one another’s decisions about immigration and nationality.

The recognition of legal statelessness helped some individuals avoid drafts, debts, and detention, but to be stateless is not to be sovereign, so it did nothing to provide them with security, representation, and a place to call home. The League of Nations had hoped to harmonize naturalization laws in the Habsburg successor states, but its efforts went nowhere. Siegelberg writes that its flawed technocratic effort “locate[d] blame with the shiftless individuals who did not remain in any place long enough to acquire a nationality.” More fundamentally, it “rested on the fiction that a world of exclusive, sovereign states already existed.” The ever-changing number of overlapping jurisdictions at the time—empires, colonies, suzerainties, protectorates, extraterritorial regimes, and other regions that did not fit the nation-state model—made the laws impossible to standardize, even if everyone had agreed to it.


If it was impossible to change sovereign law, what could a do-gooder agency accomplish? Fridtjof Nansen, the suave League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, came up with a stopgap in the 1920s: an identification booklet designed to help Russian exiles resettle. The “Nansen passport” did not guarantee much in the way of protections or social services, but it was an official form of ID, issued by a reputable organization, and therefore better than nothing.

To pacifists, idealists, and theorists of nonstate political orders, this development was a titillating sign that “anyone without a national identity represented the possibility of postnational cosmopolitanism.” Some of these thinkers saw the document as the beginning of an era when ordinary people could be under international jurisdiction; the Red Cross hoped the passports would be assigned to people displaced by other wars and conflicts. Siegelberg describes lively debates through the 1920s about whether the League could act as a guardian for the world’s stateless people. But for all its utopian potential, the Nansen passport was the exception that proved the rule: a sign, Siegelberg notes, of the growing acceptance “of the state’s ultimate control over borders.”

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the more famous Nansen passport holders, put it somewhat more bitterly. In Speak, Memory he writes:

Our utter physical dependence on this or that nation, which had coldly granted us political refuge, became painfully evident when some trashy “visa,” some diabolical “identity card” had to be obtained or prolonged…. Somewhere at the back of their glands, the authorities secreted the notion that no matter how bad a state—say, Soviet Russia—might be, any fugitive from it was intrinsically despicable since he existed outside a national administration; and therefore he was viewed with the preposterous disapproval with which certain religious groups regard a child born out of wedlock.

Indeed, statelessness carries a whiff of anarchy. In the 1920s, lawyers at Geneva’s Institut de Droit International believed in eradicating statelessness not for ethical reasons, but because it challenged the order of things. After all, documenting populations and their comings and goings has, historically, been the prerogative of governments looking to exert control; the passport was invented to keep people in, not let them out.

Literature from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries likewise tends to portray stateless people as morally compromised degenerates. Edward Everett Hale’s story “The Man Without a Country” (1863) is a parable about patriotism and integrity centered on a soldier who renounces ties to the Union during the US Civil War and lives to regret it; B. Traven’s The Death Ship (1926), in which a sailor loses his passport and is forced into indentured servitude on a leaky, filthy cargo ship, “portrayed the dehumanizing consequences of political dispossession and the implicit violence of modern bureaucracy and police power,” as Siegelberg writes. (Unsurprisingly, both stories involve wayward sailors adrift on the high seas; the League of Nations memorably referred to the stateless as the “helpless flotsam and jetsam of society.”)*

If there was ever emancipatory potential in the idea of statelessness, or in a Nansen-esque world passport to unite all of humanity, it began to dissipate by the end of the 1930s. Abstract academic and legal debates—about whether states make a people or vice versa, about whether individuals or nations were subject to international law, about the boundaries of national sovereignty and territory and whether legal personhood existed outside the state—revealed themselves as morally insufficient in the face of the political realities of totalitarianism and the real-life suffering experienced by so many people during the 1930s and 1940s. Political and military power, not creative legal maneuvers, was what would make, and break, the world. And while international lawyers and agencies continued to think about how the problem of statelessness could be resolved (ideas ranged from “dispersing” or resettling people across countries to creating a deterritorialized “state for the stateless”), no one could agree on “which body—domestic, international, or intergovernmental—had the final word over nationality disputes.” The problem was also overshadowed by the scourges of fascism, war, and nuclear proliferation.

By the end of World War II, tens of thousands more people had no homeland. Yet when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drafted, not everyone working on the document agreed on whether statelessness should be addressed; even Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the UN’s human rights commission, wanted to leave it out. Ultimately, the “right to a nationality” was enshrined in 1948 as one of thirty inalienable entitlements, but the responsibility to uphold them fell on signatory states. There were, and remain, few consequences for failing to fulfill them.

It was against this backdrop that Hannah Arendt, probably the best-known commentator on statelessness, developed her ideas about the primal importance of citizenship. Her pithy summary of the problem—that political inclusion constitutes “the right to have rights”—is cited endlessly (it’s also the title of a perceptive essay collection published by Verso in 2018). For Arendt, statelessness is a first-order evil on which a great deal of other abuses rest. A onetime Nansen refugee herself, she initially advocated for a European federation of autonomous national groups, then shifted to a more statist view after the war. Siegelberg interprets this position as aligning with the greater intellectual trends of the moment: “The time…for innovative internationalist solutions to national conflict had passed, and given way to a Great Power system less amenable to the experimentation of the interwar era.”

This liberal nationalist vision seeks to territorialize nations, borders, and persons; international law would take the form of a “covenant that arises from conditions that led to catastrophe.” Rights, Arendt argued, cannot be “universal” if there is no body to enforce them, and states forged from these very catastrophes were humanity’s best shot at success. It was critical, then, for every individual to belong to a political community. (Ironically, Adolf Eichmann’s trial, which Arendt reported on, was a product of Eichmann’s own statelessness: having fled Germany for Argentina after the Nazi regime’s fall, he no longer enjoyed the protections of his nation, and there was no one to challenge his capture by Israeli agents.) “Arendt portrayed the basic entitlement to political inclusion as a precondition of international order,” Siegelberg explains:

Statelessness therefore represented a common existential predicament, and the principle of a “right to have rights” affirmed the centrality of states to solving a common dilemma in an age of inevitable interconnection and interdependence.

Of course, this vision of justice ultimately depends on states to do the right thing, or for their people to compel them to—which doesn’t get you very far when things take a totalitarian turn. It also discounts the arbitrariness and accident of birth, relying on the idea that all states wield equivalent power, and that their citizenships are therefore of equal value—something that was never the case but is especially untrue today.

Dimitry Kochenov, a lawyer and professor at Groningen University in the Netherlands, presents these and other arguments in Citizenship, his spirited contribution to the MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series. Kochenov sees the institution of citizenship, not its byproduct of statelessness, as the real problem. He does not hold back his disdain, defining citizenship as “a heritage glorifying servility, racism, sexism, and arbitrary exclusion,” a tool for “simplifying the world” and “rendering people governable,” a gateway to complacency, intellectual laziness, and oppressive categorizations. Statelessness is a problem only because of how unequal and arbitrary the institution of citizenship is to begin with: it is assigned at birth and seldom earned, so most people never have a say in it. Further, the “mythology of the equality of different nationalities” only makes things worse: it leads us to believe that any citizenship should be sufficient for meeting the needs of individuals.

In this light, Arendt’s position and the whole project of depending on individual countries to dole out political and civil rights show their age. Today, it is unequivocally worse to be an average Libyan or Eritrean citizen in Libya or Eritrea than a stateless person in Canada or Europe. How can we equate, say, Honduran and Canadian citizenship from the perspective of political, social, and material rights when birthplace (which, for the vast majority of people, still conveys nationality even when it doesn’t grant citizenship) determines everything from how much education you get to how long you live? Is stripping someone of their citizenship really a crime against humanity, as Arendt contended, on par with the crimes of torture or death? Does formal recognition of one’s citizenship even make a difference when citizens and noncitizens are treated equally badly?

National borders have been challenged not just by wars over resources or land, but by capital and the market pressures that seek to free it at all costs. This is the tension at the heart of another kind of statelessness: the one that wealthy people and corporations choose for themselves when it is convenient. And it raises a question that is growing increasingly relevant in tax disputes and other lawsuits concerning “offshore” practices: Who is to decide where a person or her wealth is “from”?

One of the most cited decisions over nationality in international law concerns a case heard before the International Court of Justice in 1955 between the governments of Liechtenstein and Guatemala. The debate was over which country Friedrich Nottebohm, a former citizen of Germany, “belonged” to. Nottebohm settled in Guatemala before World War I and opened and operated a successful business there for decades. But like his fellow ex-compatriot Max Stoeck, he was concerned that war in Europe would make him an enemy in the eyes of the Guatemalan government, and therefore a target of expropriation. So he did what any reasonable businessman would do: in 1939 he traveled to the principality of Liechtenstein and paid 37,500 Swiss francs for a passport (in spite of being technically sovereign, the microstate still does not have its own currency). Nottebohm lived in Guatemala as a citizen of Liechtenstein—or so he thought—until Guatemala declared war on Germany. Nottebohm, whom Guatemala now viewed as a German citizen, was captured, deported to the US, and interned until 1946. He lost his home, his considerable wealth, and his livelihood.

The ensuing dispute concerned whether Guatemala was right to treat him as a German, even though the Germany he once belonged to had vanished and he’d gone out of his way to divorce himself from it by paying for Liechtenstein’s representation. The ICJ ruling found Guatemala in the right because the quality of Nottebohm’s ties to Germany were more “genuine” than his financial relationship to a neighboring principality. Siegelberg writes that the ruling “determined that nationality was not a rubber stamp that could be picked up and relinquished at a moment of emergency but a social category that reflected an authentic bond between the individual and the state.” For Kochenov, the decision “pushes citizenship’s inescapable totalitarianism to extremes”: not being able to choose your country, he argues, is feudal, not democratic.

Nationality is defined much more broadly than citizenship, which is a specific legal designation. It’s significant that, as Siegelberg notes, the court’s decision arose out of this greater “nationalizing” process the world was experiencing: the world of one person, one vote, one country. “In the 1950s and 1960s national governments seized on the genuine-link principle articulated in Nottebohm to formulate the foundations of citizenship in new state constitutions,” she writes.

This principle can serve as an incentive to deny someone recognition, or to bolster their claim using lived experiences. For example, minorities like the Karen and Rohingya in Myanmar are nationals of the country in the sense that it is where they “come from,” but because of discriminatory citizenship laws, they are simultaneously stateless (and therefore largely without rights) on account of their ethnicity or religion. American Samoans are also considered “noncitizen nationals” of the United States: they cannot vote or hold certain government jobs despite being born on US soil. Last December, a federal judge ruled they should be granted citizenship automatically; the case is currently under appeal.

The precedent that Nottebohm set is shaky, not least because the practice of buying citizenship has exploded, virtually unchecked, over the past decade. Kochenov, who has advised firms that help people buy “golden” passports from countries like St. Kitts, Nevis, and Malta, writes that Nottebohm is “no longer considered good law.” People who have bought their citizenship have yet to be challenged in the same way, though in October the European Commission opened an investigation into whether Malta and Cyprus, both EU member states, had violated European law by selling passports to individuals who’d spent little to no time on the islands (it also released a critical report detailing how such programs enable fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion). If the countries don’t respond to the commission’s concerns, the case could make its way to the European Court of Justice. Still, it is unlikely to curb the practice entirely. Past efforts to get Malta’s investor-citizens to demonstrate “genuine links” ended in the EU’s smallest member state requiring its foreign billionaires simply to rent or buy real estate.

For stateless people, however, “rubberstamping” seems to be enough for the international community. As I have detailed extensively in my own reporting, the United Arab Emirates has provided its 40,000 stateless bidoon population with passports purchased in bulk from the Comoro Islands, an impoverished nation off the southeastern coast of Africa—a “citizenship” status that saves them from statelessness in theory but in practice comes with no social or political rights. The move drew very few protests from the United Nations and its agencies, and inspired one entrepreneurial passport broker I interviewed to approach other island nations about creating programs targeted directly at stateless people seeking to acquire papers for themselves.

Evidently, the twentieth-century efforts toward “nationalizing” populations in a meaningful fashion that Siegelberg describes seem to be sputtering to an end. In spite of ethno-nationalist agitation, blood and soil have found especially fierce challengers in cash, the climate, even technology. Take the question of babies born to surrogate mothers conceived with assisted reproductive technology. What, exactly, counts as “blood” when a child’s genetic material might not match that of its birth or intended parents? How should we think about “soil” when the donors, surrogates, and parents are subjects of different jurisdictions?

In the final chapters of her book, Siegelberg addresses the shortcomings (what Kochenov would regard as the moral bankruptcy) of citizenship as defined in the modern world. What, she asks, will happen to the legal status of Marshall Islanders if they are forced to abandon their country because of flooding? What will statelessness look like if nationality and citizenship are increasingly decoupled from territory?

As all of us wrestle with cataclysmic changes to the legal, social, and physical topography of our world—accelerated migrations, redrawn borders, hostile environments, and nations torn apart by racial and ethnic discrimination—our understanding of belonging will inevitably evolve as well. History has shown us that nations can’t be trusted to account for all of humanity. Let’s not let them define us.