No place to run: The forgotten vulnerabilities of the stateless

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Co-written by Anna Roberts & Mehgan Gallagher

The world is facing a significant humanitarian crisis around forced migration with millions fleeing their homes to escape violence, war and persecution. In parallel to the forced migration crisis is a significant, vulnerable and often overlooked group of individuals, those who are stateless.

A stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality of any country and therefore remains outside of the protection of any government and it is estimated that there are currently 10 million stateless individuals around the world. You can be born stateless if you are born in a country that does not allow for nationality based on birth location alone and the parents’ country of origin does not permit nationality based on family ties alone. You can also become stateless if you are the citizen of a state that fails, are within the jurisdiction of a new state that emerges or if any state refuses to claim you as a citizen.

Regardless of the cause of statelessness, these individuals are extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged because they have no legal status or voice in the governmental system, are excluded from entitlements such as medical services or education and may not be able to legally register birth, death or marriage. Further, stateless people may face other barriers including travel restrictions and social exclusion as well as increased vulnerability to sexual and physical violence, human trafficking, exploitation and forcible displacement.

The vulnerability of stateless individuals was first recognized and addressed at the international level following the reconfiguration of nation states after WW II through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states, “everyone has the right to a nationality” and should not be deprived of his or her nationality arbitrarily. There are two international conventions designed to specifically address the vulnerabilities of the stateless, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. There are 89 state parties to the 1954 Convention which establishes minimum standards of treatment for stateless people, such as the right to education, housing and employment and guarantees the right to identity, travel documents and administrative assistance. There are 68 state parties to the 1961 Convention, which aims to prevent and reduce statelessness by requiring countries to establish nationality laws with safeguards to prevent statelessness both at birth and later in life and outlying safeguards to prevent statelessness in the event of loss or renunciation of nationality and state succession.

Despite the existence of these international legal tools, there are still numerous countries who have not signed up to one or either of these Conventions and millions of stateless individuals who are forced to survive outside of the protection of any government without rights to access health care, education, employment or even the right to travel. These are some of the most vulnerable and exploited individuals in the world and it is critical that we don’t lose sight of them in the conversation about the current humanitarian crisis as the international community feels out how it will prioritize and protect vulnerable communities across the globe.

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O’Neill Institute Hosts Meeting to discuss improving Hepatitis C data collection and surveillance

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On September 19th, the Hepatitis C Policy Project hosted a meeting at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC to discuss strategies to improve data collection and case surveillance for Hepatitis C in the United States. Thought leaders from a range of public health backgrounds, – including physicians, patient advocates, researchers and federal agency directors – convened to discuss the current state of Hepatitis C data collection, the specific data and statistical information on the Hepatitis C epidemic that is most needed to address the issue, and pragmatic strategies and policy recommendations that can be proposed to improve Hepatitis C data collection and surveillance within the constraints of limited fiscal and logistical resources.

The need for improving Hepatitis C data and surveillance stems from the increasing prevalence of the disease in the U.S. population, despite the emergence onto the market of curative drugs for the disease.  Hepatitis C is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than all of the other 60 reportable infectious diseases combined, and it is estimated that between 2.5 and 4.7 million Americans are infected with the illness. However, the fact that this number is such a broad-range estimation elucidates the problem of Hepatitis C surveillance in this country. There is no clear picture of what this disease looks like within the population, due in large part to gross under-resourcing of interventions for Hepatitis C prevention and treatment, which includes the collection and analysis of data on infection rates, risk factors, treatment and cure rates, and patient retention in care. Without comprehensive and reliable statistics, it is all the more challenging for advocates and public health authorities to justify their requests for increased allocations for Hepatitis C interventions; but this statistical profile cannot be built without the allocation of sufficient fiscal and personnel resources. It is a classic Catch-22.

The September 19th conversation brought forth a wealth of information on the current methods of Hepatitis C data collection, gaps in the effective aggregation of data from different sources, and practical suggestions for improving data collection and analysis based on lessons learned from strategies used to address other health issues, such as HIV/AIDS. A brief will be developed from the information gathered at this meeting that distills the various proposals into a comprehensive policy recommendation that emphasizes the importance of having high quality, reliable data and surveillance strategies that accurately identify the full scope of this public health crisis. The brief will be used to influence the legislature to increase funding allocations for Hepatitis C initiatives, and is part of the ongoing national strategy to eliminate Hepatitis C in the United States by 2030.

Posted in National Healthcare, Uncategorized; Tagged: , .


India’s Surrogacy Debate

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Image courtesy of NPR

Image courtesy of NPR

India has emerged as the world’s “surrogacy hub”. Infertile couples and, increasingly, gay couples and single women from different countries are paying Indian women to carry their embryos through to birth. While the surrogacy industry in India is extremely lucrative (worth more than $2.3 billion per year), the government has failed to regulate the practice since it became legal in 2002, leading to the adoption of unethical practices that put both surrogates and the babies they deliver at risk.

In an effort to protect Indian women from exploitation, the Indian government has introduced Surrogacy Bill 2016, which the Union Cabinet passed in late-August. If approved by Parliament, the law would completely ban commercial surrogacy, but would leave the door open for altruistic surrogacy – where no money is exchanged between the birthing mother and the commissioning parents. The bill has sparked a debate in India as to whether a complete ban on commercial surrogacy is the right way to protect women who act as surrogates from exploitation.

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Posted in Global Health, Human Rights; Tagged: , , , , , , , , , .


Prisons and Jails as Health and Labor Issues

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Public health, criminal justice, and economic justice are inextricably linked. Health in prisons and jails is a matter of ongoing public concern, as the vast majority of incarcerated people will return to the community at the end of their sentences. In this blog post, I want to draw further attention to incarceration as a public health issue and also urge that we respond to it as a labor issue.

Nearly 7 million people in the United States live under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system, with more than 2.3 million people currently in prisons or jails, another 820,000 people on parole, and 3.8 million people on probation. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at more than 700 incarcerated persons per 100,000 of the national population.

Health disparities encountered in incarcerated populations are stark. The health of incarcerated people is almost always inferior to that of the general population. People in state and federal prisons and jails are more likely than the general population to report ever having a chronic medical condition or infectious disease. An estimated 40 percent have a current chronic medical condition, and more than 65 percent meet the medical criteria for substance abuse addiction. The rate of HIV infection among people in state and federal prisons is more than five times greater than the rate among people who are not incarcerated. Hepatitis C infections are also much higher in prisons and jails than in the general community. In addition, currently and formerly incarcerated people lack access to good health care.

The health and health care in prisons and jails are sometimes regarded as being of little concern to the general population, but over 95% of incarcerated individuals will eventually return to their communities and their health problems and needs will return with them. Adding to the public health challenge, incarcerated people often lack education and work experience and return to communities with weak connections to the formal labor market. Stigma associated with incarceration as well as outright employment bans further limit employment opportunities. These challenges lead to poor health outcomes and are barriers to seeking and accessing health and other services. Not surprisingly, employment challenges also perpetuate a vicious cycle of incarceration and re-incarceration.

Given this reality, it is important to look at prisons and jails through the lens of public health, but incarceration also needs to be understood as a labor issue. Incarceration is a labor issue in a number of ways. Not only do formerly incarcerated people find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions, but they also work for pennies while in prison. Furthermore, correctional officers endure staggering downsides on the job, including modest pay for high-stress employment and a life expectancy around 59 years, compared with 77 years for the general population.

In fact, advancement on the labor front may be the key to prison reform and better health outcomes. The issue of incarceration has drawn the attention of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in the United States with a long history of fighting for social justice, has pledged to reform the unfair criminal justice system and recently teamed up with John Legend to change the national conversation about mass incarceration. The outcome of the labor movement’s involvement is uncertain, but two things are clear.

First and foremost, labor unions represent correctional officers. While this can mean opposition to commonsense policies, it can also provide an opportunity for change. Improving the financial and job security of correctional officers could be a step toward changing the culture of prisons. With the support of labor unions, it may be possible to pursue models of correctional employment that discourage rather than encourage the mistreatment and dehumanization of incarcerated people. One potential model could be to rotate correctional officers to work placements outside of prisons and jails, possibly in social services, to promote a broader perspective and combat entrenched stigma.

Second, labor unions can support training programs for currently and formerly incarcerated people that result in union jobs. The Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) program in Washington State involves unions and helps incarcerated people learn the building and constructions skills they will need to earn a union wage after they have served their time. Such programs are essential to preparing people for and linking them to jobs.

Incarceration must be recognized as one of the major public health challenges facing the United States. The need for innovative solutions to this pressing health concern necessitates addressing issues of labor and employment.

Posted in National Healthcare; Tagged: , .


More sugar industry interference: this time with ads warning of the health effects of soda

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Last week, we learned that the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to minimize the link between sugar and heart disease, blaming saturated fat instead. Unfortunately, scientific evidence isn’t the only thing the industry has been influencing: a soda company in Colombia has successfully pushed for the suspension of a television advertisement warning the public about the health effects of sugary beverages.

Last week, the Colombian government ordered an NGO, Educar Consumidores, to suspend a television advertisement on the health risks associated with drinking sugary beverages. The order to pull the ad followed a complaint from Colombia’s largest beverage company and Pepsi affiliate, Gaseosas Postobon, which claimed the ad misled consumers in breach of Colombian law.

The “Tomala en Serio” ad campaign

The “Tomala en Serio television ad shows a man drinking sugary beverages throughout the day: a bottled juice in the morning, an iced tea at lunch time, and sodas in the evening. The images are accompanied by graphics showing how many teaspoons of sugar are in each drink.


A voiceover tells consumers that seemingly harmless beverage consumption “adds up to a lot of extra sugar that can cause serious health problems including obesity, which causes diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.” The ad includes graphic images depicting these health conditions.

The ad concludes by urging the public not to harm themselves by drinking sweetened beverages and recommends drinking water, milk or tea (without sugar) instead.


The Colombian ad is based closely on NYC’s “Do you drink 93 sugar packets a day?” television advertisement that was aired as part of its “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign. A very similar ad, “No te hagas daño tomando bebidas azucaradas” aired in Mexico in 2013.

The decision suspending the “Tomala en Serio” ad campaign

The decision from the Superintendent of Industry and Commerce found that the ad contained inaccurate and misleading information about the health impacts of consuming sugary beverages. The superintendent found that the ads messages were not supported by scientific evidence, noting a lack of scientific certainty in terms of the causal relationship between sugar consumption and diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

Industry’s interference with scientific evidence also undermines legal decisions

Just as these ads say, sugary beverage consumption is a significant contributor to weight gain and overweight and obesity are important risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and premature death. The superintendent’s decision, which was reached without a hearing, is based on an incorrect understanding of the scientific evidence. The decision to suspend the ban is based heavily on the superintendent’s finding of “lack of evidence,” rendering the decision flawed. Unfortunately, the decision doesn’t stop there; the order requires Educar Consumidores to seek pre-approval for future ads concerning sugary beverages.

Educar Consumidores should consider its options for challenging the superintendent’s decision in court, with a view to reinstating the “Tomala en Serio” advertisement and ensuring that the association can continue its efforts to educate the public on the dangers of sugary beverages. The government’s restraint of current and future noncommercial educational campaigns is particularly concerning. Clear arguments could be made based on the right to health, freedom of expression, and consumer protection.

It is unacceptable that the superintendent has relied on consumer protection laws, namely the consumer’s right to information, to ban an advertisement that provides clear and accurate information on the health effects of drinking sugary beverages. Following in the footsteps of tobacco, Big Soda is co-opting human rights arguments, courts, and quasi-judicial making bodies to undermine a fundamental human right: the right to health.

Posted in Global Health, Human Rights, Non-communicable diseases; Tagged: , , , , .


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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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