Photographer's Note


Problem of Statelessness

On 10 March 1993, a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into the Cambodian fishing village of Chong Kneas and opened fire, killing and injuring more than 60 people of ethnic Vietnamese background. In the panic which followed, more than 30,000 people from this minority group fled into Viet Nam, while 5,000 more found themselves stranded on the Cambodian side of the border. These displaced people and their ancestors have lived in Cambodia for generations. They speak fluent Khmer and consider themselves to be Cambodian citizens. But they are not recognized as such by the Cambodian authorities, and have consequently been prevented from returning to their villages. By mid-1995, there was still no solution in sight for them.

The situation of Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese population provides a graphic example of an important but sometimes forgotten humanitarian issue: the problem of statelessness. One consequence of an international system based on the nationstate is the vital importance of citizenship. To be able to reside in a country, to work, to vote, to carry a passport, and hence to be able to leave or enter that state, citizenship is required. Both substantively and symbolically, citizenship enables an individual to belong to a society. It is for this reason that nationality has been recognized as a human right, and the arbitrary deprivation of citizenship is prohibited under international law.

Despite these legal provisions, a substantial but unknown number of people are living in circumstances similar to those of the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, lacking citizenship and the rights associated with that status. Significantly, while international human rights law acknowledges the right to a nationality, it does not spell out the circumstances under which a state must grant citizenship; each country remains sovereign in its ability to establish nationality laws and to determine whether individuals are recognized as citizens.

An obstacle to solutions

The problem of statelessness is related to the issue of human displacement in two principal ways. First, statelessness can act as an obstacle in the search for solutions to refugee problems. In a number of different situations, countries of origin have refused to allow the return and reintegration of refugees whose claim to citizenship has been rejected, even if, like Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese population, they were born and bred in that state. Refugees who are preventing from repatriating in this way may, of course, encounter even greater difficulties if no other country is prepared to offer them long-term residence rights and the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

(To be continued)


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Additional Photos by Ngy Thanh (ngythanh) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 471 W: 125 N: 2332] (8458)
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