Why Women Are More Likely to Be ‘Citizens of Nowhere’

More than 10 million people are stateless around the globe, with no “home” country to call their own—and women and children are most likely to fall outside citizenship laws.

Danah was born in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti mother. Danah’s father is not Kuwaiti. Women cannot pass their citizenship to their children under Kuwaiti law, so she is literally a citizen of nowhere. (Courtesy)

This month’s celebration of women’s history, and International Women’s Day last week, offers a chance to pause and appreciate the incredible work women do every day—whether in the public eye, the work world, or in the quiet confines of home. But what if ‘home’ itself is something a woman has to fight for? For stateless women, their very existence—and the right to live a life as a full citizen of a country—has been blotted out by geopolitics and sexism. In the United States, many of these women are organizing not only for their own protection, but to create a world where no person is stateless.

People who are stateless do not have citizenship in any country in the world. Often, it’s described as being a ‘citizen of nowhere.’ More than 10 million people are stateless around the globe, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’s (UNHCR) #IBelong campaign

This is often because of discriminatory nationality laws that do not confer citizenship at birth: Only 33 of 195 countries, including the U.S., grant citizenship to anyone born within the country regardless of their parent’s nationality or citizenship. Many countries explicitly deny citizenship based on ethnicity or other characteristics, while many others have discriminatory laws that make it difficult for women to pass on nationality. In 20 countries, even when a woman is a citizen, her children cannot acquire citizenship through her—only through the father.

Danah, for example, has been stateless from birth. Though she was born in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti citizen mother, Danah’s father is not Kuwaiti. Because women cannot pass their citizenship to their children under Kuwaiti law, Danah is literally a citizen of nowhere. Danah was 4 years old when she arrived in the U.S. from Kuwait with her family. They settled in Brooklyn. When she was 15, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her. They came to her house at 6:00 in the morning, handcuffed her and put her in a truck. They took her to a facility in Queens where they strip-searched her. They detained her for six months. In the end, officials released her—because there was nowhere to deport her to.

Every year she reports to the same immigration authorities that detained her as a teenager. Her husband is a U.S. citizen, and so is their 2-year-old son, because the 14th Amendment ensures birthright citizenship. Danah describes the moment she was detained as the “climax of my life” leading her to fight to resolve statelessness.

Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, executive director of United Stateless. When she was 4 years old, she fled the Soviet Union in the area that is now Ukraine, after years of ethnic discrimination. (Courtesy)

Other people become stateless following political upheaval, in which countries cede or gain territory, or when a government collapses only to be replaced by multiple governments and nations. The fall of the Soviet Union created hundreds of thousands of stateless people—some of whom, like Karina, this piece’s co-author, now reside in the United States.

Karina was born in the Soviet Union in the area that is now Ukraine. When she was 4 years old, she fled with her parents in the 1990s after years of ethnic discrimination. Although the family’s asylum claim was eventually denied, she had no country to return to, as neither Ukraine nor Russia will acknowledge she is a citizen.

As the executive director of United Stateless, an organization founded in 2017 by seven stateless people living in the U.S., Karina works with Danah and many other women and men to change the equation for the roughly 200,000 stateless people living in the U.S.

Karina says stateless people have no legal immigration status and therefore face many of the same challenges as unauthorized immigrants: difficulty finding work, inability to travel, paying taxes but having no access to social security benefits. Their precarious position also makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Even many of the traditional means of changing status are unavailable to stateless people—Karina, like Danah, is married to a U.S. citizen, but the law does not allow her to become a citizen through marriage. Karina received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status in 2012, but the uncertain future of that program, which allows her to work, haunts her days. She worries about her mother, a widow in her 60s, who is also stateless and who lives with the knowledge that protecting her children by fleeing the Soviet Union so many years ago has left them vulnerable as long as they have no country of their own. 

Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person has a right to a nationality. But nationality and citizenship are integral to a nation’s sovereign power, so each country is generally free to resolve the problem on its own. Through the advocacy of the UNHCR and United Stateless, there is a growing recognition of the need to find a solution to statelessness—both as a domestic matter and internationally. 

The Biden administration has made some promises starting in 2021 with a pledge to ‘define’ statelessness under the law and create a framework for some kind of administrative legal status for stateless persons in the U.S. In 2022, the administration promised to move with urgency “this fiscal year,” but so far there have been no announcements. Congress has also shown some interest in the issue—Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin’s (D-Md.) Stateless Protection Act could help stateless people find a path to citizenship. 

For now, though, stateless people are still waiting.

“We all ended up in our situations because of circumstances beyond our control,” said Martine Kalaw, a stateless and undocumented survivor. (Courtesy)

Martine Kalaw, another member of United Stateless, wants people to see her potential. Not only the fact that she is stateless. “But the system is designed to make you feel so low, so worthless,” she said. “We all ended up in our situations because of circumstances beyond our control.”

Ekaterina is another member of the organization. It’s difficult, she said, “when you hear that your friends just got back from an overseas trip and you haven’t seen your family in decades.” She has “carried with me a sense that I have failed, somehow, as a human being.” 

Danah still marvels that countries deny citizenship based on gender. “I can’t understand it,” she said. “It’s 2023 and we’ve still got this problem?” 

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About and

Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.
Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough is the executive director of United Stateless. She came to the United States from what is now Ukraine when she was 8 years old, after her parents fled the destruction of the former Soviet Union, in part, because they were persecuted for their Christian religious beliefs. Now she can't go back to either country. Married to a U.S. citizen, she is now proud to call Philadelphia home.