Risks of Stigmatising Stateless People through Association and Conflation: Noxious Nexuses with Gender Based Violence and Terrorism

Deirdre Brennan & Thomas McGee

May 2023

Over the last decade, the term “nexus” has become something of a buzz word within the emerging field of Statelessness Studies. Research has often framed statelessness in relation to its intersection with other issues, such as discrimination, migration, (forced) displacement, human trafficking, child marriage, sustainable development etc. This is perhaps partly an outcome of statelessness being a poorly understood and niche subject, whereby connecting it with other larger fields of interest is a route to engaging a greater number of allied stakeholders (outside the small mainstream of specialists dedicated to work in the statelessness sector).

Focus on the intersections between statelessness and other issues is not in itself problematic. Indeed, it is important to unpack the connections, and question how statelessness is experienced by different people in different circumstances. Considering intersecting forms of marginalisation and/or identity may also present more nuanced understandings of statelessness as both a legal and lived phenomenon. However, having each focused on a particular statelessness “nexus” in our own work (discussed further below), we have come to reflect on, and develop concerns about, the assumptions that can lie beneath the neat framing of a “statelessness nexus”.

In this blog, we discuss a number of concerns for stateless people when certain associations are privileged within academia or NGO advocacy work. These include correlations made between stateless people and risks to human trafficking, lack of access to education, COVID-19, gender-based violence, and terrorism. The first concern relates to methodological challenges in determining whether an intersection exists: How is the strength of the correlation to be measured or validated? Is there any demonstrable causality between statelessness and the linked issue? And is there a risk of over-interpretation through extrapolation? The second concern we raise relates to the discursive implications of linking statelessness with particular issues such as criminality: for example, does the emphasis of a nexus between statelessness and sexual/domestic violence or with terrorism reify images of stateless people as necessarily either perpetrators or victims?

Weak Evidence of Weak Correlations and Misreading Correlation as Causation

Firstly, how confident can we be in the claims made about the intersections in question? Are these arguments always built upon strong data, or are they sometimes rather driven by presumptions? Nobody is arguing that statelessness does not have significant impacts on the ability of affected individuals to access contingent rights, but which rights are impacted by statelessness, and how, is key.

For instance, the correlation between statelessness and challenges in accessing education, and the consequent impacts of this on stateless people’s lives, has been well documented through both anecdotal and quantitative data. Stateless people’s inability to access (especially tertiary level) education is, in many cases, directly caused by their citizenship status, and so this relationship is more than incidental correlation. Similar dynamics exist concerning freedom of movement and access to healthcare. However, statisticians hasten to remind us that correlation is not causation in every instance and this means that, within the statelessness sector, caution is needed in determining when it is quantifiably accurate and appropriate to proclaim, or repeat, an association between statelessness and certain impacts or risks. Indeed, other correlations may be based on less robust data. For example, while it is understood that there are overlaps in the impacts of statelessness and the supposed root causes of human trafficking (or modern slavery), neither qualitative nor quantitative data have satisfactorily established a causal linkage between the two.

In Deirdre’s experience working on a project about the vulnerability of stateless hill tribe women in Northern Thailand to human trafficking, victims of human trafficking were not included in the research. As such, while it may be possible to draw a correlation between both issues, concluding a causation between statelessness and human trafficking is arguably impossible without statistically significant data or the experiences of stateless people themselves. There are therefore two immediate problems with repeating this correlation. First, the emphasis on the salacious imagery of ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ frames other forms of labour exploitation - that stateless people may well experience - as less urgent and important to address. And at the same time, an image of all stateless people as (potential) subjects of human trafficking contributes to an agency-less, victimisation narrative around stateless people. It is thus important to tread carefully when repeating a nexus between statelessness and human trafficking. It would be beneficial to examine whether other confounding factors are present, and to look for the nuances in how stateless people approach access to labour and experience exploitation. The project in question, in fact, drew out important subtleties around stateless people’s likelihood to migrate in order to measure the participant’s vulnerabilities to trafficking. For example, it was found that statelessness alone was not affecting the perceived likelihood of moving away to search for a job, and yet at the same time, stateless people reported to be more likely than those with citizenship to consider paying a middleman to find a job. These sorts of complexities in the data are often overlooked in lieu of a snappy analogy.

For his part, Thomas has worked on exploring the possibility of a statelessness-LGBTIQ+ nexus. In doing so, he sought to unpack the intersection implicit in “rainbow statelessness”. While he highlighted certain relatively rare situations in which state-level homophobia may result in statelessness (through punitive citizenship stripping), or scenarios in which trans people might be considered as stateless if they have no nationality documents corresponding to their post-transition identity, in the vast majority of cases the statelessness-LGBTIQ+ intersection is an incidental overlap, rather than having a causal relationship. For sure, queer stateless people may experience both their statelessness and their queerness differently due to this intersection. However, with available data on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) - as well as its intersection with statelessness - extremely limited, there is nothing to suggest that queer people are any more likely to become stateless, or vice versa. Indeed, it may be simply - echoing the famous Stonewall campaign slogan - that "Some [stateless] People are Gay. Get Over It!"

Stigmatising Conflations

Our second concern is about the specific types of issues linked to statelessness, and the discursive implications that accompany such correlations. It goes without saying that the intentions of those working in the statelessness sector are not to perpetuate harmful imagery of stateless people. Nevertheless, it is important for us all (especially those of us unaffected by statelessness directly) to reflect on the potentiality of doing so through repeated use of certain linkages. The linkages that concern us in particular centre around the implied criminality of statelessness, namely, the nexus between statelessness and terrorism, and statelessness being linked to heightened incidence of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Before analysing the potential risks of stigmatising stateless people by association, we first provide two brief examples of where the identification of an issue may lead to unintended consequences for, and framing of, stateless people.

While the link between educational exclusion and statelessness is relatively well-established, there is a risk of inadvertently presenting stateless people as necessarily un- or under-educated. One of the challenges of statelessness programming is how to tailor outreach to both those with limited literacy (as a consequence of exclusion from the school system) and avoid insulting those who have attained advanced qualifications (often despite significant challenges). Likewise, identifying the heightened health risks of stateless people during the pandemic played into xenophobic discourse in scapegoating them as “vectors of infection”, concerns we have raised elsewhere.

Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Abuse

It is not uncommon to observe the issue of gender based violence (GBV) being attached to the discourse on statelessness, including where women are unable to transfer citizenship to their children due to gender discriminatory nationality laws (GDNL).In countries where GDNL are in place, the point has been made that women may be dependent on their husband/father to retain and obtain citizenship for themselves and their child. As such, options to escape an abusive relationship may be impacted by women fearing loss of their own citizenship, or not acquiring any for their child(ren). For women experiencing domestic abuse who are themselves stateless, concerns have also been raised that access to recourse, housing, or police support may be limited due to her citizenship status. And if help is not technically limited, she may still be afraid to present herself to authorities as a stateless person. Both the real and perceived fear of authority’s (in)action can prevent a stateless woman from leaving an abusive relationship. Indeed, research on a small sample size in Côte d'Ivoire found that although the prevalence of GBV was similar between stateless people and those with citizenship, there were disparities for stateless survivors of GBV when it came to accessing justice.

Currently, there is only a limited body of literature speaking to a reality of higher prevalence of GBV among stateless people (see a study conducted in the Dominican Republic). While highlighting such correlations is certainly important, where nexus-making may become problematic is when causation is (unintentionally) implied. For example, when the nexus between statelessness and GBV is loosely phrased, nuances are lost, and instead the general reader may assume stateless people are more vulnerable to GBV, and that statelessness is, per se, a cause of GBV. This is problematic as prevalent linkages of the two issues sometimes leave behind a disempowering notion that women affected by statelessness or GDNL are somehow predisposed to suffering domestic violence and abuse. It stigmatises communities affected by stateless as suffering higher rates of GBV thus distorting the actual reality of GBV around the world. Linking the issue of GBV to statelessness, and specifically to GDNL, focuses attention on particular regions – primarily in the Global South. In actuality, GBV is a global crisis and the repeated correlation between GBV and GDNL risks perpetuating an ‘othering’ view of non-Western countries, especially the MENA where there is the highest concentration of countries with GDNL. While stateless people and their families indisputably face difficulties in situations of domestic abuse, is it more useful to examine the structural inequalities that surround stateless people and compound these difficulties than to assume it is the citizenship status that causes them?

Terrorism linkages

Framing statelessness through a security and stability lens presents another example of problematic associations for stateless people: that with the phenomena of radicalisation, violent extremism, and terrorism. Academics and policy analysts perhaps focus on such themes in the hope of presenting compelling arguments (particularly to states) that serious action must be taken to address statelessness. While some academic work has highlighted the “value of the human security framework in addressing statelessness”, little consideration has been given to the possible costs of such framings. Another researcher has stated that “[s]tatelessness is not only a human rights and development issue; it is also an important issue for the future security and stability of the Middle East region.” Such framing is, however, more problematic when the same author states that “[t]he exclusion and denial of rights to large populations due to statelessness may lead to radicalization and violent extremism among marginalized populations.” Conflating statelessness with refugee situations, he even goes on to say that “Statelessness is linked to an increased risk for radicalization and violent extremism. Youth living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Uganda are often targeted for recruitment by terrorist associations.”

First of all, how are such claims actually substantiated? We need to question the underlying logic relied upon by articulations like those above. These statements put forward (implicitly or explicitly) the idea that legal marginalisation necessarily causes social exclusion, that social exclusion necessarily leads to resentment, that resentment necessarily builds into radicalisation, and that radicalisation necessarily manifests itself in violent form. While each step in this is conceivable in the abstract, this narrative is clearly over-simplistic. Firstly, numerous other factors contribute to radicalisation and terrorism potential (principally ideology, itself not addressed here). Indeed, arguments that terrorism is a multi-causal phenomenon are far from new. More broadly within studies on terrorism, the “marginalisation hypothesis” (alternatively known as the alienation–radicalisation hypothesis) has been critiqued for reliance upon tenuous links and “flawed assumptions that have little or no evidentiary basis”. Is it, therefore, possible to isolate statelessness from the myriad of other factors in play? Surely, doing so would require a large pool of data surveying stateless and non-stateless individuals who have and have not engaged in terrorism. To date, we have been unable to identify any such research. Instead, much of the literature proposing links between statelessness and radicalisation and/or terrorism fails to cite concrete and specific cases, suggesting that commentators are often relying on instinctual thinking or conjecture rather than conducting evidence-based research.

Even if there is a minority of such examples to be presented, what is the level of significance of any such correlation? Every one of the world’s (conservatively) estimated ten million stateless people who has not been recruited into terrorist action provides a counter-example to challenge the claimed correlation between statelessness and terrorism. Looking at the issue from another direction, the saturation of so-called “homegrown terrorism” in academic and policy-oriented literature over the last two decades presents a further striking counter-example, demonstrating that legal inclusion as a citizen does not automatically equate to affective belonging and loyalty to state and society. Given that when terrorism does strike, testimonies in media often characterise perpetrators as having been, for example, “polite, just a normal teenager..”, it is necessary to take more nuanced approaches when trying to understand individual trajectories of radicalisation. Framing stateless people as “usual suspects” is not only likely inaccurate, but also dangerously stigmatising for all those affected by the issue.

Irrespective of the questionable validity of arguments about statelessness leading to terrorism, such discourse is problematic as it imposes uncomfortable connotations upon all stateless people. The adverse impacts of these spurious narratives might be similar to the Islamophobic framings within counter-terrorism work, where targeting already “marginalised” communities within counter-terrorism discourse is liable to have counter-productive impacts of producing feelings of greater alienation (a criticism of many policy approaches to the issue). Similarly, another study argues that focus on a migration-terrorism nexus has contributed to the “process of social construction of migrants as threat objects”. The recent global increase in citizenship stripping practices against those labelled as a threat to national security has further cemented a conceptual link between statelessness and terrorism. Not only does this trend have worrying implications for international cooperation; it also stigmatises all stateless people by association. For example, in the Syrian context, the new connection with terrorism has led people who have experienced statelessness for decades due to discrimination and persecution from the state where they were born to distance themselves from the term “stateless” – out of fear that “people will think I’ve done something so bad in life that I’ve had my nationality taken away.”

Perhaps most worrying is the assumption that stateless people are devoid of agency to shape their futures, and to determine the way that they respond to the deprivations and limitations faced due to their legal situation. Might stateless people not feel insulted by the suggestion that they are somehow pre-disposed to terrorism by virtue of their statelessness? Might it not be, on the contrary, that their experiences of statelessness have led them to a greater commitment to the struggle for intersectional human rights, a stronger appreciation for the rule of law, justice and good governance?

Concluding Thoughts

Challenges in data collection related to statelessness require caution in interpreting the nature and significance of correlations, especially in relation to issues such as criminality that can be considered stigmatising. We must be critical about whether correlations are meaningful and well-evidenced, and remain sensitive to how such correlations are presented, and the discursive implications for stateless people themselves. Ultimately, we should not exceptionalise stateless people as radically different from anyone else. We believe that the statelessness sector will benefit most, and especially benefit those it is designed to serve, by focusing on improving research before repeating weakly evidenced assumptions about the relationship between statelessness and other potentially stigmatising issues.

1. While it can be argued that gender discriminatory nationality laws (GDNL) are themselves a form of gender-based violence, for the purpose of the present discussion we consider GBV as referring to sexual, physical and emotional forms of violence, such as rape, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence.