4 November 2021

Unseen People, Invisible Viruses and Blind States: Protecting Stateless Peoples as we Learn to Live with COVID-19

Cast your mind back to December 2019, before you had to queue for shops; before leaving your house to visit family and friends became illegal; and before words like lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine and even pandemic were part of common parlance. That was a great world, that’s the world we are all yearning to get back…but should we be?

The pandemic has seemingly caused a mass case of social amnesia – we want to go back to ‘normal’, but we have forgotten that before COVID, ‘normal’ was a world of rising authoritarianism and right-wing nationalism; a world which discriminated against minorities; a world rampant with racism and discrimination. We should not be striving to return to ‘normal’, but rather forging ahead into a new world where these structural inequalities, systems of oppression, racism, xenophobia and so much more are addressed.

The pandemic highlighted the flaws of governments. The stateless and those whose nationality is at risk are among those excluded by states responses and overlooked by actors whose missions encompass the human rights protection of excluded and marginalised people. Worldwide, more than 15 million people lack a nationality and tens of millions more risk losing or being unable to prove their nationality. These people have endured structural exclusion and discrimination for a long time, and their disadvantage has been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic.

As UNHCR Nansen Award Laureate and Coordinator of the Central Asian Network on Statelessness, Azizbek Ashurov, explains, “In the context of a severe economic crisis, aggravated by a pandemic each state tries to focus, first of all, on the needs of its citizens, and this is a reality that is reflected in the actions of governments. To effectively ensure human rights on the one hand, while combatting the pandemic each country needs measures aimed at creating an equitable mechanism for distributing equal assistance to everyone, regardless of the status of people.”

In June 2020, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) set up the COVID-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund (CESF) and Consortium. This initiative responds to COVID-19 by raising funds to channel resources to activists and NGOs across the globe to implement projects. Importantly, it centres the expertise, experiences and perspectives of stateless people and activists by supporting localised responses, designed and delivered by those working directly with affected communities. The Consortium is based on solidarity and peer-support and responds to the challenges borne out of racism, xenophobia, rising authoritarianism and populism made worse by the pandemic. Where there are no other avenues for relief, projects also included support towards tackling some of the immediate humanitarian needs.

In June 2021, the Consortium published ‘Together We Can: The COVID-19 Impact on Stateless People & A Roadmap for Change’. The roadmap sets out a 3-step framework to resolve and address the structural discrimination and exclusion of stateless people during COVID-19 and beyond. Stakeholders, including donors, are urged to check for institutional blind spots and ensure statelessness is prioritised; to consult and engage in dialogue with stateless people and to build back better, ensuring we do not return to normal, but forge ahead into a new version of the world where those with the power to make a difference are no longer blind to the needs of the stateless and those with nationality issues.

COVID-19 devastated the visible world and the philanthropic sector rose to the challenge of addressing those hit hardest, but what was missed was an unseen world also ravaged by the impact of the pandemic. The blind spot that exists when it comes to statelessness must be made visible to ensure that where the stateless are among those left furthest behind, they are also among those prioritised for support in helping them catch up. This means investing in understanding their particular contexts and needs, to ensure that they are no longer side-lined or excluded because of their lack of legal identity.

COVID-19 has been a global disaster, but also an opportunity for us to come out the other side and build back better. The world in December in 2019 was not a utopia and we should not be stiving to get back there. Instead, we must learn from COVID-19 and work towards longer-term structural reforms and change by investing in activists and NGOs like those in the CESF Consortium, supporting community-based action and, without fail, when working with stateless people, centring their voices over all others.

This is a follow up to “Unseen People, Invisible Viruses and Blind States: Protecting Stateless People in Times of COVID-19” from 2020



Georgia Field

Outreach and Development Officer, Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion