University of Melbourne Magazine

Lives in limbo

  • Millions of people are being forced to flee the places they call home. By Muriel Reddy

    A Rohingya man helps an elderly woman after their boat ran aground in Bangladesh in September, 2017. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

    They came from different worlds, one privileged and the other poor, but comic genius Spike Milligan and Ahmed al-Kateb, a volunteer council worker, shared a surprising bond. Both experienced statelessness, albeit fleetingly in the case of the comedian.

    In 1960, Milligan was declared “stateless” under British immigration laws after he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown. He resolved the issue by adopting his father’s Irish nationality. Al-Kateb’s path from statelessness to Australian citizen was more torturous and much more indicative of the difficulties faced by the world’s estimated 10 million people who have nowhere to call home.

    Their plight is unimaginable, unable to do the sorts of everyday things most of us so happily take for granted – opening a bank account, owning land or property, accessing healthcare, getting a driver’s licence, attending school. Their lives are in limbo.

    But momentum has been building to support these ‘forgotten people’ and the newly-established Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne is at the vanguard of international efforts to end statelessness by 2024. The challenge is as daunting as it is ambitious.

    “Stateless people live in a country they regard as their own, the place where they have lived and where their families have lived for generations, and yet they’re not regarded as nationals in that country,” explains Professor Michelle Foster, Head of the new Centre.

    “Although some can be refugees, in most cases stateless people have not left their country and are not seeking protection elsewhere. The remedy they would be seeking is recognition in that country as nationals.”

    The Rohingya people are a contentious but obvious example. Despite their existence in Myanmar dating back generations, they were denationalised in 1982.

    It’s not a new phenomenon. Up to 2 million Russians were denationalised after the Russian Revolution; the Nazis used it as a form of persecution against the Jews.

    An estimated 250,000 people are stateless in Latvia because they are determined to be of Russian, rather than Latvian, ethnicity. Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia are recognised only as “nonimmigrant foreigners” despite living in the country for generations.

    Australian government data suggest there are 56 stateless people living in our community, although the number in detention is unknown. Ahmed al-Kateb, born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees from Gaza, was deemed stateless when he was rescued from a fishing boat washed up on Ashmore Reef off the northern coast of Western Australia. He endured seven hellish years before the government finally agreed to allow him to settle here.

    According to Professor Foster, there are also 27 countries, including Nepal, whose nationality laws discriminate against women. “They won’t allow women to pass on their nationality to their children. If the father is unknown, the child becomes stateless.”

    Having served for 26 years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Erika Feller (BA, LLB(Hons) 1972, Janet Clarke Hall) was especially keen to make the Centre happen in Melbourne. It made sense to her because 40 per cent of stateless cases registered by the UNHCR are in the Asian region.

    “This centre has the potential to be of great value,” says Ms Feller, a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government. “There is little sensible documentation of stateless people in the region.”

    One of the challenges in the field is understanding the scope of statelessness. Many consider the figure of 10 million to be conservative. In collaboration with the UNHCR, the Centre is working on a global nationality database that will be used to measure the extent to which legislation and policies of different countries are compatible with international treaties on statelessness.

    “This will not be used as a tool to berate countries but rather as a tool that will provide information to advocates, to lawyers, to governments, to anyone within that country and region that wants to use it as an advocacy tool or a tool of understanding,” says Professor Foster.

    Historically, many countries have been resistant to such initiatives but there has been a softening in their positions over the past two years. “There is a very strong push at the international level to have statelessness raised higher on the national agendas of countries,” explains Ms Feller. “It needs to be understood and it needs to be addressed.”


    David Manne, the executive director of Refugee Legal, the country’s largest provider of assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, and a member of the Centre’s advisory board, believes statelessness is one of the most urgent and vital human rights challenges facing the world today.

    “It’s at the sharp end of injustice and inhumanity,” he says. He’s enthusiastic about the Centre’s commitment to the development of practical initiatives to address challenges such as a legal framework to provide protection for stateless people.

    “We know the consequences of not doing so results in many people being left in limbo,” he argues. “Many are consigned to prolonged and indefinite detention. It’s a tragedy.”

    The Centre, which is being supported by a generous gift from Peter McMullin (BCom, LLB 1974) and his wife Ruth, will focus on teaching, research and engagement projects. “Statelessness grabbed my attention largely because of my past history as a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal [1993-1996], where Australia was a leader in the field of refugee law,” McMullin says.

    Ms Feller says a number of universities have already expressed interest in a curriculum for a teaching program it hopes to create. In addition, it will run an inaugural summer course next year, which it hopes will attract interest from people who have a role in policymaking, particularly in the region.

    “Our advice from the UNHCR, which has been running courses like these for years, is that it’s quite extraordinary how many government decision-makers will come to the courses and fully understand the issue for the first time,” explains Professor Foster.

    She’s determined that the research projects adopted by the Centre should have practical impacts.

    “The projects that we focus on will be with an eye to assisting states to understand what some of the issues are for that particular state, and how they might be able to change the laws.”

    While the Refugee Convention of 1951 has some 150 signatories, the 1954 Convention on Stateless Persons, which sets out the rights and protections of stateless people, has far fewer. That, however, is changing as the UNHCR puts pressure on hold-out countries, setting a target of 2024 to eradicate statelessness.