When I returned back to the mainland after forced exiled by the US Government in US territory of American Samoa, I was flown to Washington, DC to meet with my lawyer and UNHCR who helped day and night to get me out from the island in South Pacific. While in DC I met Lucija Millonig who wanted to write an article about stateless people. She sent me her thesis, I have not published it here but looking over, it is an amazing piece and deserve right to be seen. It’s not only about me or Mona Kareem, it is about stateless people in the United States of America and unwillingness of this government to solve the issue of statelessness and put the stop to torture our lives and violate our basic human rights.
ERASED STATELESS OF THE WORLD
By LUCIJA J. MILLONIG
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY May 2013
She sits inside a dingy Irish bar, which smells of beer and fries,in Washington Heights, near 168th Street , Columbia University Medical Center. She orders a drink. Something smooth with a tangy aftertaste. Takes a sip once it is put in front of her and places it back on the moist napkin. Her fingers run across the wooden bar top ridden with watermarks and scratches. She says she is Muslim. From a North African tribe called Bidoon, who live in the deserts of Kuwait. Her people have been living in Kuwait City for a century now and even assimilated with the “urban folk.” However, about 30 years ago they were erased from the national registry. Denationalized. Citizens no longer and rendered stateless.
“What one must remember is that citizenship is not a privilege, it is a right,” Mona
Kareem continues with a hint of seriousness. “We must stand in solidarity with each other,
because we are all rejected.”
Kareem is 25 years old, with dark curly hair, almond-shaped eyes, and wearing a Tshirt
that reads, “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.” She is not ashamed of being
stateless, or Bidoon, and speaks publicly to garner attention to the issue of statelessness.
Statelessness is a term reserved for a person who is not considered a citizen by any
state. It simply means a person has no birth certificate, no passport, no identifying
documents, no record of ever existing, and at continuous risk of being arrested or detained
for lack of such documents. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
estimates that over 12 million people around the world are stateless, 4,000 of which are in the
United States alone.
“For stateless, there is no government they can turn to, or that will protect them, or
that they can give their service to,” said Dr. Maureen Lynch, senior associate on Stateless
Initiatives at Refugees International. “Citizenship is kind of like a two-sided coin, you know
the state protects you, but you have something to offer. Your talents are your services to that
country, and most people want to do that, they want to help.”
Many stateless were great contributors to society. As in the case of Albert Einstein who
was stateless for five years before acquiring Swiss citizenship. One of the most famous cello
players in the world, Mstislav Rostropovich, had been stripped of Soviet citizenship for 12
years, before President Mikhail Gorbachev reinstated it. Even several athletes, participating at
last year’s Summer Olympics in London, competed under the Olympic flag as they were
Surprisingly, this human rights issue still goes unnoticed today. There are three main reasons how someone can become stateless; when a country breaks apart, as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, discrimination against a certain group of people by stripping them of nationality, such as the Bidoon of Kuwait, or beaurecratic reasons, as when a person applies for asylum, is rejected, but cannot go anywhere else.
“They are undocumented, but they are not immigrants, because they have no country of origin,” explained Sarnata Reynolds, stateless program manager at Refugees International.
Often, statelessness is passed on from generation to generation. If either father or mother is stateless, then a child born to such parents will be stateless as well.
“It’s very hard to understand the idea that someone is born in a country and then isn’t a citizen, for Americans especially,” Reynolds continued, noting that the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen.
“The consequences of statelessness will differ depending on where in the world you are, but generally speaking you can say that not having citizenship you have restricted access to rights and services,” said Sebastian Kohn, program officer for Equality and Citizenship at the Open Society Justice Initiative. “In some places it’s as extreme as you can’t send your kids to school, you can’t marry, register birth or death, you can’t work.”
Kareem’s family, like many other Bidoons, lived in Kuwait for generations. Although they identify as a tribe, they are native to the area, just like Native Americans here in the United States. They consider Kuwait their country, but the Kuwaiti government does not. In 1985, the Kuwaiti government decided to systematically push the Bidoon out of the country by denying them access to birth certificates, passports, public education, and employment. This discriminatory practice left over 300,000 people stateless and unable to travel or legally work. The Bidoon were then required to carry around a “Stateless” identification card – often hand-written, laminated, in a bright color of red, yellow, or green.
As with stateless people in other countries, the Bidoon often turn to a life of crime to support themselves. Kareem explains that robbery happens a lot in the Bidoon community as many do not work or even finish middle school. Even migrant workers from South East Asia earn more and are treated better than the Bidoon she says.
“It’s not the question whether we are native or not, its based on discrimination, based on class, based on all these things, because technically the Bidoon are tribes, and there is discrimination by a minority of the metropolitan, the urban people,” Kareem stressed. “They are the high class, they are the ones that have money, they are the ones sharing power with the ruling family, they are the decision makers, and they are the biggest opponents of naturalizing the Bidoon.”
The Embassy of the Republic of Kuwait in Washington D.C. was contacted for comment, in regards to how the government is helping the stateless population, but has been unresponsive.
Kareem publicly criticized the social, political, and economic injustices suffered by the
Bidoon. In return, she was harassed, interrogated, and monitored by Kuwaiti officials. She
says things got worse after giving an interview to the Al Jazeera network. Then she decided
she needed to leave the country.
Kareem was accepted into Binghamton University in upstate New York to pursue a doctoral degree in comparative literature and received a visa to enter the United States. “This is a very unusual thing, because any western country is afraid to give a visa to someone with [no papers] to avoid illegal immigration or calls to asylum,” Kareem added. “I knew I wouldn’t come back for a long time, but I wanted to leave, enjoy a different kind of life.” However, there was a cost. She had to leave her family behind.
Kareem’s family is mostly artists and writers. Her father, a published poet, still sends her literature. Her mother, instead, sends her authentic Arab coffee, which is yellowish and extremely bitter. One drinks it in shots and usually you eat something sweet with it, such as dates.
Having coffee and evening meals is what Kareem misses the most with her family. She tries to keep in contact regularly, but they never discuss her situation and often times speak in code.
Kareem entered the United States in 2011 and continues spreading the story of her tribe’s troubles through her blog, Bidoon Rights. She has even been approached by numerous organizations to give talks on statelessness. Most recently, Kareem appeared on a panel discussion held at Columbia University to talk about statelessness in the Dominican Republic.
In 2004, the Dominican government passed legislation that any immigrants, specifically of Haitian descent, were no longer Dominican citizens and thus stripped of nationality. The purpose of the law was to stop current immigration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. However, overnight nearly 250,000 people became stateless, even those who had already been living in the Dominican Republic for several generations.
The March 2, 2013, panel discussion became heated when Maria Bizenny, a Dominican immigration lawyer, argued that this was a problem of political discrimination. Her comment was directed at Vice Consul Dr. Tamayo Tejada, from the Embassy of the Dominican Republic. Tejada stressed that by law, Dominican citizenship can only be passed through heritage and added that they are working on legally solving this problem. He was short on specifics when that might happen. Until then, many of these people will face anti-Haitian sentiment and discrimination. Young people will not be able to finish high school, apply and go to college, obtain legal work and be compensated accordingly.
“These are long standing issues that are not surprising us on a day to day basis,” said Nicole Shepardson, policy team leader at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Department of State. “These are issues that we’ve been following for years now. Just to
open up the dialogue, many years ago the [Dominican] government wasn’t even willing to
use the word “stateless” and now we’re able to talk to them about this issue.”
In the United States, statelessness usually occurs when someone legally enters the
country, applies for asylum, is denied, but then has no country to return to as their country of
origin no longer exists or recognizes them as nationals. Stateless individuals are then
processed under the same U.S. immigration system as someone who is undocumented
(illegal), ordered deported then detained.
A recent UNHCR report on statelessness highlighted the story of a stateless woman
(unidentified to protect her privacy) who came to the U.S. in 1995 from the former Latvian
Soviet Socialist Republic. Her asylum claim was denied and she was then detained for 90
days. Once released, she was told she would be detained again and prosecuted if she did
not continually contact embassies to request permission to enter another country. “She lived
in constant fear of running out of countries to contact, being returned to immigration
detention, and of being criminally prosecuted for lack of documentation of her efforts,” the
“A lot of stateless people end up in prolonged detention, immigration detention, where
the government wants to remove them, but because they do not have citizenship anywhere
else there is no where to remove them to,” explained Sebastian Kohn, program officer for
Equality and Citizenship at the Open Society Justice Initiative. “As a result they are detained
and sometimes even if they are released they are at risk of being detained again, which
Mikhail Sebastian is one of those people. Born February 26, 1973, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sebastian, an ethnic-Armenian, fled his hometown with his family when he was just fourteen years old when war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He fled first to Armenia, then Russia, and finally to Turkmenistan. On a business trip to the United States in 1995, Sebastian defected and applied for asylum.
Sebastian was denied asylum on the grounds of insufficient evidence of possible persecution. He was ordered to leave the U.S., but as he came on a Soviet-issued passport, and the Soviet Union no longer existed, he had no country to return to. Sebastian became stateless.
Detained for six months, Sebastian was released and told to report regularly to U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Then he was issued an ID and work permit. He worked 12-hour days at menial jobs, since his education and professional skills were not recognized under U.S. standards. He was able to travel around the U.S. and its territories freely, but after 9/11, immigration enforcement became stricter and the U.S. government implemented a regulation that passports were required to travel to territories and back.
In 2011, Sebastian wanted to take a New Year’s trip to American Samoa. “I could not obtain travel documents since I was stateless so I started to make some inquires to find out what organization would be able to issue travel documents for stateless persons,” Sebastian said. “Based on my research I found World Service Authority in Washington D.C. that issues a World Passport to stateless persons and refugees based on Article 13 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
With this document in hand and permission from his immigration officer, he was allowed to go to American Samoa. But his four-day trip ended in an unexpected way. Sebastian was not allowed to board the flight back to Honolulu, HI, and was told that he unknowingly “self-deported.”
“I love to travel,” Sebastian said. “I love to explore new places and new culture. It
gives me great possibility to educate myself and expand my knowledge. I would not say I
risked it. I traveled within the U.S. and U.S. territories before and never had any problem. I
did not realize that this trip would become my nightmare.”
With clothes for only four days and being housed by generous strangers, Sebastian took his plight online and recorded his experience and feelings on his blog, Protection and
Reduction of Statelessness in U.S.. He contacted UNCHR and obtained pro bono legal services to help him get back to the mainland. He even got Congressman Eni F.H. Faleomavaega of American Samoa to write a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, stating, “I am very disappointed by DHS’s decision not to allow Mr. Sebastian to return to the U.S. given President Obama’s recent efforts to allow for prosecutorial discretion on unauthorized individuals in the U.S. and deferred action for individuals who entered as children.” But it was all to no avail.
“Of course I know in some way it is my own fault, but I am human and I make mistakes. I checked everything that I knew, and it seemed clear to go,” Sebastian exclaimed.
Sixteen years in the United States living as a stateless person left him living in self-exile on
“It’s really complicated, but I can’t imagine him being there for the next 40 years of his
life, but it’s quite possible,” said Sarnata Reynolds, stateless program manager at Refugees
International. “American Samoa has been really good to him, but they don’t want him there
When first contacted via email, Sebastian had already spent over a year stuck in American Samoa. He was feeling desperate. “I cannot control myself anymore. I cannot live like this. This torture is worse than anything else human being could experience for just one guilt of being stateless. I do not know what else I can tell about myself and my madness on this island. I am
tired, I am really tired and at this point I do not wish to speak to anyone right now as the
people I put my hope on do less to push the government to move as quickly as they
can. This is frustrating. It is outrageous, something so simple to be decided takes years
to accomplish. But I am no one, I am stateless, I am citizen of nowhere, I am unwanted, I am not
recognized, I am zero and nobody apparently wants to deal with stateless persons. I do
not know what would be next. I lost time. I do not have future anymore. And mostly,what I am afraid is I am losing hope and faith.”
The Department of Homeland Security handles immigration proceeding in the United States. However, the agency itself is somewhat constrained by U.S. legislation. Currently, there is no U.S. law that recognizes a stateless person.
“The problem is that the system is not set up to deal with stateless people,” said David Baluarte, Practitioner-in-Residence, International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law. “So you have stateless people stuck in a model of immigration regulation and enforcement that is devised for people that are nationals of other countries, but if you take away that premise that someone doesn’t have a place to go, it changes the way that person should be processed, and that is the point where we haven’t gotten to in our country yet.”
After WWII, the United Nations passed two conventions to address the issue of statelessness and set in place key protection guidelines for all countries who signed on; the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. More than 70 countries agreed, but not the United States.
“The conventions are important in our eyes,” State Department Official Nicole Shepardson said. “We agree with the principles and objectives of the conventions, but there are certain aspects of the convention that are inconsistent with U.S. law.”
The 1961 convention includes the principle that someone who wants to voluntarily renounce their citizenship should not be allowed to do so if it would render them stateless. However, under U.S. citizenship law, an American has the right to do this. Some Americans in the past have done so –most often to make a political statement – but then shortly afterwards reapplied for citizenship, going through regular immigration channels of naturalization. Human rights lawyer David Baluarte claims it would be simple to fix this problem. “It’s not that you would have to change an existing law, you would just have to create a new one, I don’t think that is particularly complicated to be honest,” Baluarte stated. “The judiciary can do this much, the executive can do this much, and the legislature is really the one that needs to solve the problem.”
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is currently pushing a law to deal with this issue, the 2013 Refugee Protection Act, while a similar law failed in 2011. Leahy’s legislation outlines a protection mechanism for the stateless in the United States. The bill has been referred to the Committee in late March of this year, but according to govtrack.us has only a 27 percent chance of getting past the Committee. “For the U.S. Government, statelessness is an important issue in our foreign policy. We are committed to addressing the global problem of statelessness as part of our
overarching commitment to champion human rights and dignity,” Shepardson said. Shepardson further explained how the bureau has funded several research projects, which proved statelessness reduces household income by a third. It also found that the average education of stateless households is lower than that of citizens by at least one year and in some cases as many as six years.
Mona Kareem of Kuwait is one of the fortunate ones to receive an education, but she is still stateless and cannot legally work. “I’m hoping within three-four years [the political situation in Kuwait] will get better. If not, I’ll probably end up in one of the countries in the Middle East near Kuwait,” Kareem said.
Mikhail Sebastian’s future seems uncertain as well, but his efforts in amassing attention have paid off. With the help of UNCHR, David Baluarte, and a team of lawyers, Sebastian was granted Humanitarian Parole and issued travel documents back to the U.S. in March. Humanitarian Parole does not guarantee citizenship, nor is it a path to citizenship; it is just an order that allows a person who is facing extreme hardship or difficulty to enter the United States.
Sebastian flew to Washington D.C. to speak with UNCHR officials and Baluarte to discuss the next steps in his case. He is currently sleeping on a friend’s couch, with all his belongings in storage and waiting for work authorization. He, also, is still stateless. Smoking a cigarette, on his second cappuccino at 10 a.m. in a small coffee shop at Dupont Circle, Sebastian says he started smoking at 25, but smoked even more in American Samoa, because he was so nervous.
His half-moon eyes are animated, and he explains his whole ordeal in almost one
breath. After a while he gets quieter, sits, and looks solemn. That is when he says that he is
having a hard time adjusting back to regular life. Some have even suggested he go to
counseling. “If it was not for this experience I might be just one of those stateless forgotten in our
immigration reform, but now I am hoping statelessness will be included in the broad
immigration reform,” Sebastian said. But for him, nevertheless, the personal cost has left a
scar. “A friend of mine from Texas said that my life will never be the same,” Sebastian said. “I
Lucija Millonig worked for UNCHR in 2012 under Media & Communications.
Back in March 2013 I was granted humanitarian parole after 15 months of exile in American Samoa thanks to our broken immigration policy. The tremendous work and efforts were implemented by UNHCR, media, CNN, NPR, and the first journalist who made my story possible to highlight the issue of stateless people in America, Moises Mendoza.
When I returned back to Los Angeles my humanitarian parole was still valid but the catch was that when parole expires the person should leave the US or file for extension. Where the stateless person should go when his parole expires? The only place is to the moon. Well, we filed for an extension of humanitarian parole back in February and no decision or answer so far. There were miscommunications between ICE, DHS and my lawyer. First we were told we had to file for new asylum which we did in summer 2013 but LA asylum office rejected stating I was out of their jurisdiction. Next we tried to find the real answer as what to do with my case, with stateless person trapped in limbo in the United States for the past 20 years. The repeated answer was again to file for new asylum since United States is not a signatory member to The UN 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the UN 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
FInally after playing cat and mouse games, LA asylum office decided to take over my asylum case based on the directives given by the headquarter in Washington, DC. On April 17, 2014 I had an asylum interview at USCIS. Most decisions for asylum take about two weeks from the date of the interview. Today is June 26 and I have not received any answer and no decision was made. I keep calling USCIS every single day and the reply I get is “your case is still pending”. It really drives me insane, I feel like I am getting crazy after 20 years suffering in uncertainty and being in limbo thanks to US broken immigration policy and the US denial of accepting the fact that we do have stateless people living on our soil. I am so pissed. I cannot renew my working permit, I cannot renew my DL as USCIS decided to take their sweet time and sit on my case until they decide to make some sort of decision of what to do with me next? I spent 6 month in US immigration jail, 15 month exile in US territory of American Samoa, 12 years been on order of supervision where I had to report to immigration people every three month, not counting my 20 years in this country as being stateless, the man without country and citizenship. It is so painful, I am so tired of this, so pissed about the whole system because people who work for the government love to play with human lives and torture them mentally, gradually.
Here is the last response received today from USCIS Asylum office to the inquiry in regards to my case: “This file is still undergoing an extended review and I don’t know how long it will be before a final decision is issued…..”
Los Angeles Asylum Office
P.S. Can I get my peace finally? Can you stop torturing me? Can you let me breath free? Can I gain my freedom?
Dear Mikhail -
Greetings from Washington. We appreciate your reaching out and providing updates as to the efforts you’ve taken to follow up on your case, both with UNHCR HQ and via other avenues. This email provides information specifically on the requests that you have submitted to UNHCR.
You have requested that UNHCR facilitate your resettlement outside the United States. At this point, we are unfortunately unable to do so in your case. Resettlement is an extraordinary remedy to find a durable solution for refugees (each year only 10% of refugees that need resettlement worldwide can actually benefit from it) and is typically based on pressing protection needs (threat to a refugee’s life, for treatment of a severe medical condition, etc.). Moreover, UNHCR does not currently engage in resettlement of refugees out of the U.S., nor do we generally engage in resettlement solely on the basis of statelessness. As such, we cannot fulfil this request.
Additionally, you requested that UNHCR issue a travel document to facilitate your departure from the United States and entry into another country. As we have explained before (please see attached), neither UNHCR nor the UN has the authority to issue travel documents for stateless individuals. As such, we regrettably cannot comply with this request, either.
Please note that individuals without travel documents may be eligible for an emergency one‑way travel document for humanitarian reasons through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC laissez-passers are issued for humanitarian reasons and are valid for one-way travel only and only for travel to a country that has already agreed to allow the individual to enter. This would require you to obtain advance permission to enter a third country, and then subsequently request an ICRC laissez-passer.
For more information regarding the procedure to apply for such a travel document, you can contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross, which will provide you more information and the necessary forms to make a request for travel documents. Please be aware that foreign country immigration officials are not obliged to honor the travel document issued by the ICRC, but many of them do so. If you don’t have the contact information for the local Red Cross chapter in your area, you can also contact the National American Red Cross office in Washington, DC.
Although we cannot assist you in the ways you have requested, UNHCR remains committed to assisting you in finding administrative solutions to help alleviate the hardships you and other stateless people face in the United States. In your case, this includes on-going support for renewal of your parole status, as well as on-going support for reopening your underlying asylum claim before the immigration judge in Texas. UNHCR has supported both efforts in the past and would be very willing to do so again. We also continue to advocate for adoption of a statelessness determination procedure and pathway to citizenship for stateless people under U.S. law. We look forward to continuing to provide you this support and to field related requests from you and your legal counsel.
Again, thank you for your on-going contact and engagement. We regret that given the existing legal and political framework, we are unable to assist you in the ways you have requested, but again, we remain committed to supporting you and other stateless people in the U.S. and globally. As always, please do not hesitate to reach our or have your legal counsel reach out with requests for our assistance.
Since I was paroled into the United States nothing positive had happened so far. I arrived in March and now we are in October. My humanitarian parole expires in March 2014 which basically means I’ll be again without status. I am ringing the bell and no answer. I am trying to communicate with UNHCR to assist me if possible to relocate me to another country in EU that has provision related to the protection of stateless person and no answer from them either. Immigration authorities advised my lawyer to file for new asylum case which we did back on July 8 but USCIS has rejected new asylum case advising us to file for motion to reopen old case. ICE in Houston, TX where originally my asylum case was filed in 1996 is not willing to join motion to reopen leaving us hanging in the air. Here are the emails from my lawyer:
"We cannot file anything. The courts are not functioning.
“I am writing to follow up on Mikhail’s case, as we appear to have arrived at a standstill once again and I am trying to identify our best way forward.
CITIZENS OF NOWHERE. STATELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES
U.S. Immigration Reform May Finally Help Stateless People - See more at: http://www.refugeesinternational.org/blog/american-immigration-reform-may-finally-help-‘stateless’-people#sthash.wkTvgmft.dpuf
There are roughly 4,000 ‘citizens of nowhere’ in the United States today. They are from Kuwait, Burma, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and many other places. Legally speaking, however, they don’t belong anywhere. No country claims them as citizens. Some were rendered stateless after their nations disintegrated; others were stripped of their rights because of ethnic, racial, gender, or religious discrimination in their home countries. - See more at: http://www.refugeesinternational.org/blog/american-immigration-reform-may-finally-help-‘stateless’-people#sthash.wkTvgmft.dpuf