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Modes of identity and belonging among de facto stateless ethnic Vietnamese children living in Cambodia

My research provides an analysis of an understudied area of belonging by examining the lives of those deemed to be doubly marginal: stateless children. Statelessness is an emerging topic of research that so far has been dominated by legal analyses; I was interested in the daily lived experience. In demonstrating how meaningful belonging is achieved in spaces of 'invisibility', I make evident that statelessness does not equate to ontological dehumanisation, which is often the picture painted by a strict legal analysis of those living without citizenship. Rather, children are able to negotiate problematic social positioning and access opportunities through relationships formed locally, and within transnational organisations that open up new possibilities to belong, albeit in a context of precarity, frequent setbacks and tragedy. As noncitizens, these children are shown to be active agents tactfully negotiating the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. This research therefore fills a gap in thinking around children’s statelessness, identity and belonging. It speaks to the burgeoning literature on children’s geographies, the sociology of citizenship, rights and belonging and adds to an understanding of the anthropology of childhood. As such, themes in this research pertain to a discussion on citizenship, human rights, morality, religious conversion, ethnicity and inter-generational mobilities. This project is interdisciplinary in nature but has an anthropological undercurrent.

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What is statelessness?

Article 1 of the 1954 Statelessness Convention defines a stateless person as one “who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.” This is legally defined as de jure stateless. According to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion at least 15 million people face life without a nationality today and another child is born stateless every 10 minutes. Statelessness is a global problem. It affects people around the world from the Thailand Hill Tribes in Asia to the Kenyan Nubians in Africa to Dominicans of Haitian-descent in the Caribbean, to the Roma in Europe. Whilst some stateless people are refugees, many have never left their country of birth. Even though the problems related to statelessness across the globe may manifest themselves differently, at its core is a group of people who have been denied a legal identity.

Why are people stateless?

Causes of statelessness lie both within and outside the State as sovereignties draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion according to changing power relations across international and domestic boundaries. As a result, there is a lack of international agreement over who is to be considered ‘stateless’, especially so when considering populations unable to prove their nationality, or notwithstanding having documentation, are denied access to human rights. The definition of de jure stateless becomes rather narrow considering there being no universal standard for citizenship or nationality. Furthermore, because discriminatory policies, laws, and practices can mean that citizenship is experienced unequally, even among citizens, citizenship can be experienced in such an ineffective manner that their experience mirrors that of those who are de jure stateless.


The term de facto stateless, therefore, exists to describe the situation of those who fall within the large range of people whose lived experiences are effectively of statelessness, but who do not satisfy the de jure  definition. Whilst it is difficult to clarify the position of de facto statelessness this does not mean it should be omitted as a focus of research. In fact, an appreciation of the phenomenon of statelessness as plural and diverse, gives proper attention to the social condition of statelessness: of its historical specificities as well as its close connection with citizenship and nationalism.

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The number of Vietnamese that are stateless in Cambodia is also unknown. However, the evidence suggests that statelessness is endemic among the population: for example, in two separate studies researching statelessness among ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia in Kampong-Chhnang province, researchers estimated that around 90 per cent did not have birth certificates and/or identity cards – a situation that places them at  great risk of statelessness.

In my own study, I met Vietnamese families who had lost their documentation during the Khmer Rouge period. They were unable to register the birth of their children. One mother explained that when she tried to get birth certificates for her children, the price quoted was $100 per child. With six children the cost was an immovable obstacle. Surprisingly, this family had, much like many of these ethnic Vietnamese communities, particularly concentrated on the Tonlé Sap and Mekong River, been settled in Cambodia for generations. Other such communities are found throughout the country, including Phnom Penh and the provinces bordering Vietnam.

In order to prove Cambodian citizenship a person must have a national ID card. The application for one is mandatory from the age of 15. An ID card can be applied for using: (a) birth certificate which proves Cambodian citizenship; (b) a family book which confirms that his or her spouse is a Cambodian citizen; (c) documents, judgements of court evidence that person was born from father or mother with Cambodian citizenship, or (d) a Royal Decree proclaiming the recognition of the application for Cambodian citizenship to the person. An ID card is the key to engaging in civic life as it unlocks the mechanisms to enrol in voter registration, enables the holder to work, obtain civil registration, acquire land and property, open bank accounts, receive travel documents and open a business. Research to date, including my own has evidenced that securing such documents is difficult. The birth certificates which many children lacked suggest an ongoing risk of generational statelessness. In the short term the lack of a birth certificate prevents access to social services and schooling beyond early years education. 

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My research is located in Preah Thnov, a village made up of predominantly long-term residents of mixed-marriage Khmer and Vietnamese and ethnic Vietnamese households. Similar to other studies which evidenced local authorities categorising Khmer people living in predominantly Vietnamese communities in Phnom Penh as ‘Vietnamese’, mixed-marriage households in this study were also at times regarded by local authorities as Vietnamese. Khmer spouses without documents could not prove their Khmer identity, so were categorised as Vietnamese and lived as though effectively stateless.

Neither Cambodia nor Vietnam are signatories to the two Statelessness Conventions. However, these two Conventions are not the only basis for protecting against, reducing and preventing statelessness. Many international human rights instruments, which Cambodia and Vietnam have both ratified, contain significant provisions against statelessness. These human rights treaties contain provisions upholding human rights, which apply regardless of nationality and immigration or stateless status. For instance, Cambodia is signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Cambodia is fast growing to be a lower-middle income country. The newly opened General Department of Identification adopted a new National Strategic Plan of Identification (2017-2026), which is mainly guided by a rationale of improving civil registration and vital statistics across the Kingdom of Cambodia. The plan seeks to ‘develop an enabling legal environment for personal identification’, which offers an opportunity to register births and integrate marginalised long term Vietnamese into its citizenship regime. Additionally, Cambodia's recently adopted sustainable development goals enshrine under goal 16.9 “by 2030 provide legal identity for all including birth registration”. So, the opportunity and the instruments for change are there. Let's hope they are used justly.


Read further about statelessness and the Vietnamese in Cambodia 

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