Statelessness: What Hannah Arendt Can Still Teach Us

Once stateless herself, Arendt still informs our discussions today.

Border Crossings


Hannah Arendt graffiti - Arendt was once stateless The Mantle


The Independent recently reported a large demonstration of around 160,000 protesters in Barcelona, Spain. The protesters were demanding the government accept more refugees. The country, as of now, has just permitted 1,100 refugees. The article said that in September 2015, Spain’s government pledged to bring 17,337 refugees in within two years; 15,888 from camps in Italy and Greece, and 1,449 from Turkey and Lybia. This protest, among many others around the world, is evidence that the wave of refugees is still a critical international human rights issue.


Part of our discussion of refugees stems from Hannah Arendt’s concept of statelessness. A current analysis of this concept comes from Jeremy Adelman’s article titled Pariah: Can Hannah Arendt Help Us Rethink Our Global Refugee Crisis? His article highlights that we are now experiencing the highest number of refugees globally since the second World War. Arendt’s concept of statelessness is used as a framework for presenting the current situation of refugees on the one hand, and providing a criticism of international human rights on the other.


The effectiveness of international human rights has been questioned under this massive wave of refugees in our world todayThe international human rights community has been limited in developing a framework for protecting refugees, but I believe we can challenge them to reconsider how they respond to the presence of these people.



The Fate of the Stateless

Statelessness is when a person is not recognized, or is disregarded, as a citizen under the laws of their state. It can occur due to a variety of reasons, which differ from one country to another, and from one political community to another. And unfortunately, the existence of stateless persons is a common reality of our current era.


Indonesia presents an example based on the contemporary status of the Ahmadiyya Islam Minority (the Ahmadis) in the country. The Ahmadis in West Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia, are an example of the UNHCR’s definition of refugees. They are being discriminated against, violated, and isolated by their fellow citizens. Other groups (radicals)—after burning their properties—forced the Ahmadis to leave their village and flee to another place before getting what is called a "Transito Place" provided by local government.


In September 2002, the Ahmadis in Pancor, East Lombok, Indonesia were attacked by another radical Islamic group. Approximately 300 Ahmadis were living in this village. In June 2003, about 35 Ahmadiyya families were expelled from Sambi Elen village. Again, in February 2006, attacks were happening in the Ketapang Gegerung Lingsar village, West Lombok. Currently, at least 30 families comprising 118 Ahmadis are living in Transito Place, Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara. The District of Social Affairs Department said that the West Nusa Tenggara province stopped providing basic needs assistance such as food, medicine, and clothing in 2008 to the refugees. Syahidin, a coordinator of the Ahmadis refugees to the refugees at the Transito Place, in a discussion we had in December 2016, explained that they have been struggling to get justice from the government since 2006.


The emerging situation of stateless persons may also happen in the case when governments change their laws. In the Indonesian case, for example, in dealing with violence they have experience in East Lombok, the West Nusa Tenggara province, the local government had issued a decree on September 13, 2002 to ban the Ahmadiyya.


The problem became more serious when the Indonesian Central Government also signed a special 2008 decree banning the activities of the Ahmadis. This situation can be an intentionally domestic political step to exclude and marginalize the members of certain minority groups causing them to ultimately become stateless. Another serious and critical reason is also referred to the integration of new state formation which often lacks the political consistency to protect its minority citizens. New states, with their government actors and institutions, may intentionally or unintentionally leave thousands of people stateless.


Within the brutality of World War II, the need to create a protected status for refugees became ever more crucial. John Hope Simpson, a British Liberal politician who served as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, declared in his book The Refugee Problem that refugees are basically defined as stateless in all their conditions. His book influenced further discussion of refugees.


The situation of refugees was raised and discussed during the 1951 Convention. At that time, the special protocol related to the status of refugee people was attached to the convention draft. "The Refugee Protocol" was related to citizenship status. In addition, although the complete draft of the protocol was postponed at that time, the concept of statelessness was still adopted into the 1954 and 1961 International Convention. To that end, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been entrusted with certain responsibilities with regard to the citizenship. Even though the organization has devoted time, resources, and effort to the assistance of the stateless people, they still need to bring strong institutional improvement in challenging a high escalation of refugees today.


United Nations member states have tried to establish a special mechanism for the protection of “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) and “stateless persons.” Conceptually, IDPs are persons or groups who leave their home or residence based on many kinds of attacks, discrimination, injustice, human rights violations. In this situation, they have not crossed an internationally recognized State border. In addition, in the case of children, if they are born to stateless persons or refugees, in some cases out of wedlock, they may be denied citizenship. Some individuals may find themselves stateless because of the practice of discriminatory administrative policies. In many specific cases, such as Sepulveda et. al, minorities are also considered “non-citizens” and “stateless persons.”



A Global Resistance

Hannah Arendt is considered one the most important modern thinkers. She spent her entire life critically discussing statelessness as a core concern of human rights and international politics. Besides The Human Condition, where she provides a useful debate on human rights, her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, is a fundamental reference in human rights discourse.

Moreover, Origins is as deeply concerned with the stateless explained as "unrespectable" and "the unwanted group," as the rest of us—the shocked onlookers at the horrible things that our governments do to their own people. Arendt’s brilliant view in this book can be seen as a valuable foundation as we work to understand statelessness in our world. The Origins of Totalitarianism is more than just her intellectual writing. It is also a personal struggle to give voice to the increasing number of refugees in our current time. We can say that Arendt has taken a strong resistance to the presence and performance of the global dehumanizers’ platform through the existence of refugees.


The exploration of Arendt’s concept of statelessness is mainly found in chapter nine of Origins. Through this chapter, Arendt offers updated criticism on the modern conception of human rights. She links the argument to the failure of our modern states in implementing normative principles of international human rights. International human rights—according to her—fail to protect “brutalized citizens.” Statelessness is closely associated with “the loss of a range of international treaties and national commitments” aimed to protect stateless minorities from becoming victims of massive attacks. Her concept has inspired a human rights movement in recent decades.


Arendt reflects on statelessness based on her tragic experience as a refugee. She was born in 1906 in Hannover to an assimilated Jewish family, but was forced to leave Germany in 1933 after being arrested for researching documentation on the exclusion of Jews from major professional organizations. Crossing the border to Czechoslovakia, and then to Paris, Arendt proceeded to work with Jewish organizations that were helping to settle children in Palestine.


She experienced life as Jewish refugee when she moved to the United States in 1940 with her second husband, Heinrich Bluecher. Both later became American citizens. Arendt’s experience was similar to so many other refugees who have been expelled from their countries surrounding the World Wars. Her personal experience can be seen as a parable of our century: persecution, statelessness, exile, a brief internment in a detention camp, immigration. In this horrific event, Europe faced a wave of refugees. Linda K. Kerber, who served as president of the American Historical Association in 2006, states:


When Hannah Arendt, who herself was stateless for more than a decade, wrote memorably about statelessness a half-century ago, it was technically a legal term of art, describing ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any state.’


It is helpful to revisit Arendt through her concept of statelessness in the shadow of a massive expulsion of minority groups and the global wave of refugees. Judith Butler, Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees that this concept inspires scholars and human rights defenders to reflect “a discriminatory situation” to displaced people that are already excluded by their own government (state) based on many different reasons.


After the war, it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved-namely, by means of a colonized and then conquered territory but this solved neither the problem of the minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of the twentieth century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of the stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine within the smallest territory and in terms of hundreds of thousands was then repeated in India on a large scale involving many millions of people. Since the Peace Treaties of 1919 and 1920, the refugees and the stateless have attached themselves like a curse to all the newly established states on earth which were created in the image of the nation-state.


The above description shows that statelessness is absolutely not just a “Jewish problem” as it was once believed to be in the past, but a recurring 20th Century predicament of the nation-state. Butler also reminds us, “what happened to the Jewish people under Hitler’s regime should not be seen as exceptional but as exemplary of a certain way of managing minority populations; hence, the reduction of ‘German Jews to a non-recognized minority in Germany’, the subsequent expulsions of the Jews as ‘stateless people across the borders’, and the gathering of them ‘back from everywhere in order to ship them to extermination camps was an eloquent demonstration to the rest of the world how really to ‘liquidate’ all problems concerning minorities and the stateless.” Statelessness can be applied and used as an analytical framework for looking at at the fate of victimized minority groups who are trapped in the destruction of their humanity around the world. This can be seen from the report of Antonietta Pagano (2016) at the daily experience of the Rohingya Refugees in Myanmar who are living as displaced persons.



Responding to a New Challenge

One difficult challenge is to provide a comprehensive mapping of stateless people. An international community and nation states have to build their understanding and awareness on “quantifying statelessness” as a “shared responsibility.” In this perspective, states should handle the first and the primary responsibility to identify and count stateless persons in order to manifest the international obligations towards these individuals (populations)—in accordance with international human rights under the 1975 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.


To fulfill its statelessness mandate, as previously explained, UN bodies such as the UNHCR are required and tasked with sharing current information on various aspects of statelessness. All these duties should be supported by NGOs and academia in identifying and quantifying the situations of stateless people. Elizabeth G. Ferris analyzed the problem in her book The Politics of Protection: the Limits of Humanitarian Intervention. She summarizes that all international and national institutions have to give a decisive concern to consider statelessness as complicated and challenging task in executing the international human rights principles and commitment.


By now, with increasing numbers of stateless people around the world and the implications this may have for national and regional securities, the international community is revisiting international instruments that deal with many issues relating to nationality and citizenship. These changes include the integration of several states, the rise of ethnic consciousness in many parts of the world, and the fear of large-scale population movements involving refugees. Ultimately, however, the problem of statelessness and disputed nationality can only be effectively addressed and solved by states themselves.


Arendt’s concept of statelessness has been reinterpreted through similar situations when the concept received wider academic enthusiasm and human rights movement. This is a big hope that this concept can revitalize a global awareness in providing a “protection scheme” of refugees worldwide. In addition, the challenge in analyzing this fact is a new contest of statelessness. Ben Reynolds of The Diplomat notes that International law cannot fix statelessness, as it is created continuously by the international order.



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Refugees, Stateless, Philosophy