Stateless: The Paradox of Nationality

You might not be familiar with the term “stateless”, but there are currently more than 10 million people being classified as such around the world, the equivalent of the Swedish population. Strait Talk Hong Kong, an NGO promoting conflict resolution across states, invited Chen, Tien-Shi, a professor at School of International Liberal Studies of Waseda University, for a public lecture on the topic of statelessness at the University of Hong Kong on last Friday.

Le Journal International was interested in Chen who was born and raised in Tokyo. Despite everything, she lived for almost thirty years as a stateless person.

She began the talk by sharing her troubled identity of stateless status in the past. The story has to start from her parents’ migration from one country to another. Due to the civil war in China, dated back to 1940s, both her parents moved to Taipei, Taiwan and were married there. Later, in view of a better life, they finally settled in Tokyo where they bore Chen in 1971. Soon in the same year, Japan formalized its official diplomatic relationship with the People Republic of China (PRC) over the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan). Approximately 20 thousand Chinese people holding ROC passport in Japan, including her parents, thus faced a tough decision of being naturalized as Japanese or side with PRC. In the end, her parents and Chen voluntary declared “stateless”.

Nothing particular happened until 1992, the year she turned 21 and traveled to the Philipines with her family. On the way back to Japan, they decided to take a short visit to Taiwan spontaneously. But when passing the security control, she was notified that although she is a Taiwanese passport holder due to her parents’ nationality, without a special visa for her oversea status, she was declined to enter Taiwan.

Without a choice but being deported back to Japan, Chen, nonetheless, realized it was not the end of her miserable journey. At Tokyo airport, the border control officer told her that she was forbidden to enter Japan because her “re-entry permit”, a special documentation for her stateless status, has expired.

She described herself anxious and confused. From the day on, she could not stop asking herself, if she is neither Japanese nor Taiwanese, “who am I?” Such thought deeply troubled her and henceforth propelled her to conduct more studies on the stateless community in Japan and beyond in later years.

“Statelessness, me and those who are forgotten by states”, the book by Chen, was written in Japanese but translated to Chinese and Korean subsequently (Image provided by Chen).

According to the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 10 million people remain stateless globally today. Unlike Chen, rarely do people enjoy any basic human rights, many struggle day after day for access to education, healthcare, and so on.

The most recent example of statelessness will be the Rohingya Refugees. The Muslim race, despite residing in the northern state of Myanmar, is not recognized by Myanmar government. Approximately a million suffer from severe discrimination by the government and other races and continue to live under poverty and fear. In 2017, such problem exacerbated as they are faced with violence, eventually causing more than 600 thousand to flee from the country they have lived for their whole life. Yet, the crisis remains unsettled until today.


Take a look into what being stateless is like through this video by UNHCR.


Nationality, created by countries to determine one’s legal status, is supposed to alleviate individuals from the misery of belongingness and extend legal protection over them. Ultimately, it is a two-sided relationship with each self-identified with the state in exchange for the legal rights and status. However, according to Chen, “under the current legal framework, many are denied such protection and rights.”

Ample stateless cases demonstrated such paradox of nationality. Chen raised the example of Mr. Lee in Brunei, whom she interviewed when researching on the issue. Lee lived in Brunei for three-fourths of his life, and identified himself as Bruneian more than any other nationality, though being classified as stateless. In his final few years of life, cancer struck him ruthlessly. Without access to healthcare, his body deteriorated even faster and eventually, he passed away. Chen earnestly expressed her pity and raised the issue that “statelessness can actually lead to death.”

For the stateless people, “Who should we be loyal to? What can we believe in? What is the relationship between the state and us?” asked Chen. The question of whether self-identification or the state-imposed nationality is of more importance is raised. When legislation, instead of serving the people, deprive the people of basic human rights, the necessity and the boundary of such law should be reconsidered.

UNHCR sought to end statelessness by 2024. Chen posted a question at the end of the sharing, “how can we resolve such phenomenon globally?” The answer to that will certainly require the collective wisdom and collaboration of human beings.


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