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There Are Olympians Without Countries—And Millions of Regular People, Too

Posted: Aug 01, 2012

If you watched the opening ceremony for the Olympic games in London, it was hard to miss the self-described “independent Olympians.” There were four of them: Guor Marial, Philipine van Aanholt, Reginald de Windt, and Lee-Marvin Bonevacia. In a celebration of international competition, their presence stood out because they were, in effect, stateless.

A stateless person is broadly defined as someone without a nationality. Though the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to a nationality, there are an estimated 12 million people worldwide who are stateless; some estimates say that the number is closer to 20 million. That number would be substantially higher if the United Nations also counted Palestinians, according to Sebastian Kohn, a program officer at the Open Society Institute.

“We believe this is a serious issue in particular because of the link to other human rights violations,” says Kohn. “A big challenge in this field is that there are still relatively few actors working on this. We need to see a lot more action from governments, the UN, and civil society to try to address this problem.”

So just how did this year’s independent Olympians arrive at their statelessnes? As Deadspin pointed out shortly after the ceremony, the reasons were both political and logistic: Guor Marial, a marathoner, was born into civil war in what is now South Sudan. The bloodshed claimed two million lives, including eight of Marial’s siblings and 25 family members in total. The violence led him to flee the country at 8 years old, first to Kenya, then to Egypt, before finally settling in Arizona. South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has yet to form a national committee that’s required for countries to participate in the games, and even though Sudan extended Marial an invitation to represent that country in the games, he refused.

Read more here.

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