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Ending statelessness a social justice issue for academia
Author: Division for Social Impact
Published: 28/09/2018

​​Ten million people in the world have no nationality. In 2014, this led the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to launch the #ibelong campaign to end statelessness.

Recently, Stellenbosch University (SU) also tackled this issue when its Unit of Law and Religion in the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Faculty of Theology, hosted a conference on the role of faith-based organisations in Southern Africa to protect stateless persons and prevent statelessness. The event was arranged in collaboration with the Southern Africa regional office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLF) as well as the UNHCR’s regional representation for Southern Africa.

SU’s involvement stemmed from a general feeling that a critical voice missing in the debate on statelessness was from academia. With statelessness being an issue that calls for extensive research and advocacy, transdisciplinary academic research will go a long way towards positively influencing policy. “This is an opportunity to work together to address the challenge of statelessness on our continent,” said Prof Reggie Nel, SU’s Dean of Theology. “Innovative solutions need to be found to look after the vulnerable in our society. Faith communities too have a role to play, alongside colleagues from different disciplines and civil society.” The aim was to illustrate that religious communities can be spaces of inclusion, protection and solidarity for the voiceless, the silenced, and particularly the stateless.

According to Mr Jörn Jan Leidecker, RLF regional director, existing notions of space and citizenship needed to be challenged, recognising that the notion of being a foreigner is part of our DNA and that, in a sense, we are all wandering strangers. “We need new and innovative ways of thinking about a sustainable future for us all, but particularly for the vulnerable, silenced and children,” he said. In her presentation, Mrs Melanie Khanna, head of the statelessness section at UNHCR in Geneva, said that individuals should have rights independent of nationhood. “Citizenship inter alia implies having rights that fall under the broader debate of social justice.”

Poignant personal accounts by Caroline Masuki and Sara Allelulia framed a call to action and partnership to address statelessness as a social justice issue. Recounting their own challenges in this regard, Masuki and Allelulia highlighted the need for greater awareness, for evidence-based cases to be put to states, and for churches to check that births have been registered when babies are baptised.

Prof Mary-Anne Plaatjies-Van Huffel, head of the Unit of Law and Religion, said: “We should affirm that every human being has the right to life, liberty and security; the right to education, equal protection under the law, and to be free from slavery and torture; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to a nationality.”


Mrs Caroline Masuki, Mrs Sindisiwe Moyo, LL.B., Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, Ms Aamina Petersen, LL.M. (Candidate), UWC, Prof Benjam Mezmur, ACRWC and UWC, Mrs Olivia Mugambi-Spielmann, UNHCR Zimbabwe, Prof Robert Vosloo (Systematic Theology, Stellenbosch University), Mrs Melanie Khanna, Head: Statelessness Section, UNHCR Geneva, Prof Reggie Nel,  Dean: Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, Prof Xolile Simon (Missiology, Stellenbosch University), Mr Gert Bruininkx, UNHCR Pretoria,  Ms Liesl Muller, LL.M. (Candidate), Lawyers for Human Rights, Mrs Sara Allelulia, Prof Mary-Anne Plaatjies-Van Huffel, Stellenbosch University