Who, what, why: What does it mean to be stateless?

Tom Hanks in The Terminal Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Tom Hanks played a stateless man trapped at New York's JFK airport in the 2004 film The Terminal

The UK Supreme Court is hearing an appeal by a Muslim convert, known for legal reasons as B2. He claims the British government has made him stateless - but what does this mean, asks Tom de Castella.

B2 came to the UK from Vietnam as a child. At 21 he converted to Islam. In December 2011 the UK stripped him of his British nationality saying he was involved in terrorism. The Home Office says he is entitled to Vietnamese citizenship, something Vietnam denies. As a result, B2 argues he is now stateless.

His case is complicated. But it raises the question of what it means to be stateless.

In simple terms it means having no nationality. Most people acquire nationality at birth by being born in a place or by inheriting their parents' nationality. But the UN estimates that at least 10 million people are stateless. Many of them live in ethnic populations who are discriminated against or subject to sudden changes in the law. There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya people living stateless in Myanmar. Tens of thousands of Haitians may now be living stateless in the Dominican Republic after a legal ruling last year that the children of undocumented immigrants from as far back as 1929 cannot have Dominican nationality.

Being stateless usually means not having any identity documents, says Ruma Mandal, an expert on international law at foreign policy think tank Chatham House. Getting a child's birth registered, using schools and hospitals, trying to get a job or receive benefits, renting a flat - all these things become extremely difficult, she says. And travelling legally across borders is nigh on impossible.

Earlier this month the UN High Commissioner for Refugees launched a campaign to end statelessness within 10 years. In the UK and some other EU countries there is a system known as "statelessness determination" giving people without nationality residency documents and the chance to travel abroad. The UNHCR wants more countries to adopt this.

Much of this refers to the people who rendered stateless almost "inadvertently" but there are people who become stateless after some kind of action is taken against them. In 2003, controversial radical Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza was stripped of his UK citizenship, following the introduction of powers allowing British nationality to be removed from people with dual citizenship who are believed to have acted against the vital interests of the UK. But in 2010, he won an appeal against the ruling, arguing that he would be left "stateless" as he had already lost his Egyptian citizenship. The judge ruled that it was unclear whether Abu Hamza had been stripped of his Egyptian nationality before or after the then Home Secretary David Blunkett had given notice of his intention to strip the cleric of his citizenship.

The presence of British citizens in Syria fighting for Islamic State has complicated matters for the UK. Home Secretary Theresa May has said that the UK will not remove citizenship from IS fighters born in the UK as "it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless". But the UK government does have the power to remove citizenship from people either naturalised in the UK or those with dual citizenship if it believes their activities to be "seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK". The law says that the Home Secretary should have a "reasonable belief" that those being stripped of their nationality will not become stateless. But Alison Harvey at the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association says that a reasonable belief is not enough of a safeguard.

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