Statelessness: 10 Million Invisible

Enrolling at university? Getting married? Going on a trip abroad? These seem like normal things to do, things that we mostly take for granted. Most individuals do not think...

Enrolling at university? Getting married? Going on a trip abroad? These seem like normal things to do, things that we mostly take for granted. Most individuals do not think about ‘belonging’ somewhere, and even though many of us have travelled far and lived abroad, we always keep that one passport (or two, or three) that was issued to us by this one country.

This may all seem self-evident, and yet for too many people in the world it is not.

Statelessness affects more than 10 million children and adults worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A stateless person has no nationality of any country, or more officially: Article 1 of the 1954 ‘Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons’ defines a stateless person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.

This severely impacts a person’s fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights, and the points mentioned above address only a few of those restrictions that come as a result of these rights violations.

Everyone should have the right to a nationality, and to enjoy protection by a state. The right to a nationality is recognized in a series of international legal instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Most people acquire nationality directly at birth, either through their parents (by blood, ‘jus sanguinis’) or through the territory they were born in (through soil, ‘jus soli’). It is also possible – and sometimes necessary – to apply for citizenship, basing this application on years of residence or a family connection with that country.

The causes of statelessness are manifold, but most of them come down to gaps in a country’s legal system when it comes to determining how someone acquires or loses his or her nationality. There is an increased risk of statelessness especially with more and more people moving from the countries where they were born. For example, if a child of parents from a country that allows nationality only to be passed on through birth on its territory is born the new home country, which has more of a jus sanguinis approach to nationality, this child may not be able to acquire any citizenship.

The child’s parents’ original home country will not grant citizenship as it was not born there, and the new home country sees no sufficient family links for the child to be seen as a citizen of that country.


Another, severe cause of statelessness is the discriminatory nature of who can and cannot transmit nationality in some states. The laws in 27 countries do not let women pass on their nationality, while some countries limit citizenship to people of certain races and ethnicities. A well-cited example is Jordan, where Article 3 of the Law No. 6 of 1954 on Nationality states: “The following shall be deemed to be Jordanian nationals: (3) Any person whose father holds Jordanian nationality;”, so that a child born to a Jordanian father and a foreign mother will be Jordanian, but not vice versa. Progress is being made, however, as this article by the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights shows, and an increasing number of countries are amending their nationality laws to make them less discriminatory. An example for that is Suriname.

A further reason for the occurrence of statelessness is the emergence of new states and borders, when ethnic, religious and racial minorities sometimes have difficulties providing the required links to that new country. If nationality is then passed on through family connections, the next generation will most likely remain stateless.

Lastly, statelessness can be caused by losing or being deprived of your nationality. Living outside the country for too long will result in the loss of nationality in some countries, whereas changes in a country’s laws defining who does and does not belong there may also deprive certain (ethnic/racial) groups of their nationality. This happened not too long ago to children of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic.

To prevent this from happening, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness does state that one should only be deprived of a nationality if he or she has acquired or possesses another nationality. This is however not a binding norm and therefore too often and too easily ignored.

There are plenty of other examples of stateless people in the world. Some became stateless after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, others in Côte d’Ivoire who after the country’s independence from France were not eligible for Ivorian citizenship.

Additionally, a large number of stateless persons live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, are denied Myanmar citizenship on the basis of the current laws there. This shows just how far-reaching and diverse the issue is.

There is a trend towards ending or at least lessening the occurrence of statelessness worldwide, and between 2004 and 2014, for example, a total of 12 countries amended state laws to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws.

Steps that a government can take to reduce statelessness are outlined in UNHCR’s Global Plan of Action as part of its “10-year Campaign to End Statelessness”. These include removing gender discrimination from nationality laws, ensuring birth registration for the prevention of statelessness, issuing nationality documentation to those with entitlement to it and preventing denial, loss or deprivation of nationality on discriminatory grounds.

The most powerful tool we have, as citizens with passports and recognized identities, is raising awareness of this much overlooked issue.

For more in-depth information on statelessness, check out this online course.

Human Rights
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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