There are hundreds of countries and thousands of ethnic groups in the world today, but not all nations are lucky enough to have their own recognized, autonomous state. Nations without a state are known as stateless nations, and there are still many that exist today that are in conflict with the states they inhabit. This research report will explore six prominent examples of stateless nations (the Kurds, Basques, Palestinians, Hmong, Catalan, and Rohingya), discussing how they came to be, their current condition, and how their statelessness could be addressed for future prosperity.
Kurds The Kurds are a group of around 25 to 35 million people who make up the fourth largest nation in the Middle East. Indigenous to upper Mesopotamia near the Zagros Mountains, they were historically divided into nomadic tribes that would seasonally migrate for agricultural purposes until the end of World War I, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. This inspired many ethnic groups to seek the creation of their own states in that region, including the Kurds, who wanted to establish a state called Kurdistan.
While the Treaty of Sèvres temporarily granted their wish in 1920, the Treaty of Lausanne, signed by the Allied countries who had won the war, later split Kurdistan between the Turks and the Persians in 1923 (the countries of Turkey and Iraq today). Later, under Soviet protection, the Kurds were able to establish a small state called the republic of Mahabad in western Iran in 1946, but after Soviet troops departed from the region, Iran easily conquered the state about a year later.
Since then, the Kurds have been unable to establish a homeland and remain a stateless nation today, clustered between Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Interestingly, the Kurds do not share a language or religion; instead, their unique culture and history serves to connect them. More specifically, Kurdish, an Indo-European language, has many dialects that are closely related to Persian, the most prominent being Kurmanji in the north, Sorani in the center, and Palewani in the South. In addition, Islam is the most prominent Kurdish religion and almost all Kurds are Sunni rather than Shi’ite. However, they also practice religious tolerance, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) establishing and working to maintain religiously neutral schools. However, the fact that the Kurds are not only stateless but make up a minority group in the countries they inhabit has led to many problems for them. While those countries have been trying to force the Kurds to assimilate, taking away their rights and attempting to erase their cultural identity in various ways, Kurdish nationalists still refuse to identify as anything other than Kurdish and still strongly want their own state. This escalating tension makes it difficult to identify a sure solution to the Kurds’ statelessness, but one method to prevent the breakout of a civil war might be to organize peace talks (perhaps through international involvement) between Kurdish leaders and the governments of the countries inhabited by Kurds in order to negotiate a compromise. Even if the Kurds couldn’t peacefully secede and form their own state (at least not right away), they might be able to bargain for at least some level of recognition, protection, and more autonomy with the help of certain supranational organizations such as the United Nations (UN). Basques The Basques are possibly the oldest European ethnic group, believed to have been descended from ancient farmers mixed with hunter-gatherers about five thousand years before Indo-European people migrated there. However, Spanish, Catalan, or Gascon invaders eventually conquered the Basques during the Middle Ages (476-1450 AD), though the Basques were allowed to keep a certain level of autonomy despite the fact that they had lost all of their territory to France and Spain by 1876. Unfortunately, several decades later, General Francisco Franco attempted to force the Basques to assimilate to Spanish culture, oppressing Basque culture in any way possible.
This led to the formation of various resistance groups, some of which used violent acts of terrorism as a means to fight for independence until the creation of the Basque Autonomous Community, the unification of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Navarra, three Spanish Basque provinces in 1980 that was granted recognition and a small amount of political control. While resistance groups such as the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) are still fighting for an independent Basque state, they are only a minority, and because French Basques were not oppressed the way Spanish Basques were, there has been far less conflict there. Today, approximately 2.2 million Basques currently reside in southwest France and northeast Spain, occupying three Spanish regions (Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Alava) and three French Regions (Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule) that are known as the Basque Country, Euskadi, or País Vasco together even though they aren’t politically unified. They also have their own language, simply known as the Basque language or Euskara, that is completely separate from Spanish and French with no known language family. Plus, even though Franco’s rule led to a sharp decrease in the number of people who spoke Basque in Spain, numbers have increased since his reign ended. The Basques don’t just have a universal language, however; they are also fairly homogenous in terms of religion, with almost all Basques believing in Roman Catholicism with a strong focus on Virgin Mary. In fact, religious is such a prominent part of Basque culture that many young Basques end up becoming priests, nuns, or holding other church-affiliated positions.
Since the Basques have already been given some level of autonomy in both France and Spain and resistance groups like the ETA only make up a small percentage of the Basque population, solving the Basque people’s statelessness isn’t as big of a concern as it is for other stateless nations. However, gradually working towards granting Basque provinces more and more autonomy and independence as they are already so culturally distinct from the rest of France and Spain might be a good compromise for both parties. Palestinians The Palestinians, a group of approximately 6.2 million people currently located in Israel as well as neighboring Arab countries/territories such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. However, World War I led to the Ottoman Empire’s downfall, leaving the Palestinians in an unfavorable situation. Not only that, but the British accidentally devoted Palestine, a region on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, to both the Arabs and the Jews in the MacMahon-Hussein correpondence and Balfour Declaration respectively, inevitably leading to conflict. While this mistake led Britain to take control of Palestine from 1920 to 1948 under the British Mandate for Palestine, Britain then withdrew from the territory, leading the Jews and Arabs to periodically attack both each other and the British.
While the United Nations (UN) attempted to remedy to conflict by splitting Palestine into two states in 1947, making Jerusalem open to both the Arabs and the Jews as it was a prominent sacred site in both their religions (Christianity/Islam and Judaism respectively), this action did not end the fighting as the UN had hoped; rather, when the Jews created an independent state they called “Israel” in 1948, a war over territory broke out between the two ethnic groups. The Israeli ended up conquering most of Palestine, leading to even more tension between the Arabs and Jews and the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Another war thne broke out between Israel and various surrounding Arab states in 1967, and the PLO executed many acts of terrorism on Israel, followed by merciless Israeli retaliation. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the two nations attempted to negotiate a peace agreement, leading to the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 in which they agreed to recognize each other, Israeli troops were withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured Palestinian territories, and the Palestinians were granted a small amount of autonomy in those territories. Still, tension remained high, acts of violence have continued to this day, and many Palestinians have either fled Palestine or been exiled. Simply put, though the Israeli have a state, the Christian and Muslim Arabs who used to live in Palestine, now known as Palestinians, do not, and conflict between these two nations evidently still exists today.