26 October 2020

Unseen People, Invisible Viruses and Blind States: Protecting Stateless People in Times of COVID-19

Offered the option of being given one super-power which would you choose:

  • Superhuman strength?
  • Invisibility?
  • The ability to fly?

There is one catch though – you cannot control the consequences.

Selecting superhuman strength might result in accidentally crushing the person you love; selecting invisibility means that society as a whole will be blind to you; and if you pick the ability to fly you might never come back down to earth.

If, like us, you opt to select Option 4 –

  • None of the above – thanks, but no thanks, I’m just fine as I am.

We won’t blame you, after all you can choose option 4 because this isn’t reality and just a harmless game of ‘would you rather’. . .right?  Well, actually, wrong.

Option 2, invisibility, is not a game to some.  It is the actual lived reality of upwards of 15 million stateless people around the word and tens of millions more people whose nationality is under threat.

Statelessness is the most acute violation of the right to a nationality – a stateless person has no nationality. Despite the fact that human rights law affirms the rights of every person, nationality acts as a gateway whereby people access and secure these rights. Often denied the right to nationality as a result of discrimination, stateless people are vulnerable to further discrimination and unequal treatment.  All too often they are denied basic rights like healthcare and education, they are disenfranchised, excluded, ignored and treated as invisible by States.

COVID-19 too is invisible. And when an invisible virus spreads through communities, States are more likely to protect those they choose to see, rather than those they are blind to. The structural issues that underpin the pre-existing vulnerability of stateless people, means that they will always be left behind, and never more so than when faced with the ravages of a global pandemic.

What can be done?

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) is the only NGO working on statelessness and the right to nationality worldwide.  It has responded to the current situation by raising funds for, and implementing, the COVID-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund (CESF). The CESF is a targeted and time bound initiative that enables ISI to meet needs on the frontline of the crisis.  It channels resources to activists and NGOs that have a track record in working with stateless people and are informed by their priorities.  Whether it is providing emergency packages and/or building the capacity of locally-based partners, the funding also deepens essential insights and knowledge that are then used to advocate for systemic and structural change.  Building Back Better means opening the eyes of states to the position of people who for far too long have been invisible.  Working from the local to the national and international, ISI networks its partners to form an international consortium committed to protecting stateless people in the time of COVID-19.

The decision to establish the Fund followed pleas for emergency relief from ISI’s partners around the world. Extensive consultations with stateless communities, activists and grassroots organisations established the priorities. Advice received from philanthropy helped the CESF to take shape as an innovative, participatory and agile mechanism to distribute resources.  The principles of equal collaboration, mutual learning and effective action were adopted.  The Fund was up and operative.

Some of the projects supported under the CESF were showcased in a recent webinar, ‘Together We Can: A Consortium to Protect the Stateless in Times of COVID-19’. During this discussion Consortium members highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on the communities they support and how funding and partnerships under the CESF is helping to address the crisis.

While stateless communities face emergency needs as a result of COVID-19, what has also become blindingly obvious is the structural obstacles to their equal treatment, brought into sharp focus by the impact of the pandemic. Consequently, humanitarian relief marches side by side with work towards systemic solutions, that can challenge exclusion, and confront the practical, legal and political barriers that stateless people face. We are so excited by the projects underway, in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, India, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, North Macedonia, Malaysia, Montenegro, Nepal, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The Fund is backed by some fantastic donors, including EFC members, the OAK Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, but with conversations underway with new partners, there remain pressing demands on its limited resources.

This blog commenced by asking you to choose a super-power. But for stateless people the reality is the opposite – lack of control, autonomy, identity and agency that follows when society is blind to you. No matter what you do.

However, evidence of the impact of the CESF grants to date shows that we can redress the balance.   ISI’s partners – who themselves consist of many people directly impacted by statelessness – are mobilising to take action. Forcing states and governments to stop ignoring or turning a blind eye to some of their most vulnerable people is an objective worthy of support.  Our partners can and are changing lives in the face of the added challenge of COVID-19. They are the super-heroes, and we need help to continue supporting them.

To learn more about the CESF and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion,  please contact ISI‘s COVID-19 focal point Ottoline Spearman at Ottoline.Spearman@institutesi.org.


Avila Kilmurray

Migration and Peacebuilding Executive, Social Chance Initiative