Photo: UNHCR / Lionel Charrier
According to the 1954 Statelessness Convention, a person is considered ‘stateless’ if he or she is ‘not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million people in this situation globally, though the lack of reliable ways of establishing that someone is stateless and gaps in reporting make this figure only a rough estimate. The implications of statelessness are huge, especially where there is no other documentation available.
At its most obvious, lacking a passport or other identity papers makes it legally impossible to cross international borders — and sometimes also internal borders — often trapping people in situations where they suffer from the persecution arising from statelessness. Stateless persons without documentation who want to move will need to do so by finding ways around legal checks and barriers, perhaps hiring smugglers and putting themselves at risk of being trafficked.
However, the problems that stateless persons experience are far wider-reaching than just the legal inability to travel. This can be best seen through the stories of stateless persons themselves. International organizations and NGOs have recorded testimonies of persons experiencing the implications of statelessness across the globe. These show some of the key problems associated with statelessness and some of them are mentioned here, with links to the videos of each person sharing their story.
Some persons may know from the outset that they are stateless, while others only realize this much later. This was the situation for Thai Ha in the Netherlands, who was already a graduate student of human rights law when she discovered her lack of status upon applying for a government job. As she followed up the situation, she found that she was unable to obtain a passport from Vietnam, her country of birth, nor any other country, and she could therefore not naturalise in the Netherlands. She is only now beginning to realize how this may impact upon her life decisions.
Some potential impacts of statelessness around the world can be seen in the experiences of other stateless persons. For example, Khumbulani Frederik Ngubane in South Africa describes how, despite having connections to a number of countries, no country will offer him citizenship. The consequent lack of legal recognition prevents him from basic activities like opening a bank account and has even led him to be detained for long periods. His story is an example of how a person can accidentally fall between citizenship systems.
Railya Abulkhanova was studying in Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. She was far from her home in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Unable to naturalise in any of the new states, she is still stateless and now lives in France. Despite being highly qualified, her lack of a citizenship has put major obstacles in her professional and personal life.
Mikhail Sebastian also became stateless from the break up of the Soviet Union. He was living in the United States when he decided to go for a four-day holiday to the island of American Samoa. When he tried to return to the US, however, he discovered that he would need to go through US immigration control, which he had not expected. It took 14 months for his re-entry into the US to be secured. Stateless persons need to consider carefully the legal consequences of activities that other people take for granted.
Citizenship law that discriminates against women is another common way in which people become stateless. Um Chadi explains how, despite being a Jordanian citizen living with her family in Jordan, her children cannot be officially recognized as hers and she is unable to pass her citizenship to them. This is because her husband is not Jordanian. Similar laws exist in 31 countries.
This inability to have official recognition of parentage also entrenches statelessness among some groups. The situation for members of the Roma community and other stateless groups in Serbia demonstrates how a lack of birth registration and parental statelessness can lead to situations of inherited exclusion and poverty, along with a lack of rights. These and other groups can be used as a subject to persecution. This may be on the basis of their lack of status, or their statelessness can be part of the persecution they experience. The extreme difficulties of such groups can be seen, for example, through the case of Rohingya people living in Myanmar whose extreme situation of intentional statelessness has been an explicit government policy since 1982 when a Myanmar law made it impossible for them to receive full citizenship.
This is not the first UNHCR campaign regarding statelessness. Following a low accession rate to the two Statelessness Conventions, in 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, UNHCR launched a successful campaign to encourage states to sign the conventions. This led to larger numbers of states joining the global effort to tackle statelessness. The increase in signings can be seen in the figure below (adapted from Chart 2 in UNU-GCM Policy Report 02/01).
The campaign launched today goes further. Marking 60 years since the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons was signed, it calls upon the world to end statelessness in the next 10 years. To do this, the campaign ‘will seek greater political commitment to resolve protracted situations of statelessness and to prevent new situations of mass statelessness due to state succession or arbitrary deprivation of nationality’.
Can you promote the recognition of statelessness status alongside calling for an end to statelessness?
There are two aspects to combatting statelessness. This can be seen in the names of the two Conventions. The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons offered a way to identify people as stateless and suggested a range of rights and protections that should come with a recognition of such status, using the same logic as the Refugee Status. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness instead provided measures directed at reducing the incidence of statelessness, through birth registration, and a default to assigning citizenship based on where someone is born (jus soli) in cases where citizenship is not clear, for example. The two-pronged approach of recognizing stateless persons and stopping people from being stateless is crucial in the campaign to minimize the difficulties of statelessness.
In some cases, like that of Thai Ha in the Netherlands, acquiring the status of statelessness would provide the first step towards citizenship. In other cases, the status of statelessness would provide access to labour, social security and other rights. As such, promoting the status of statelessness can be part of a campaign to end statelessness. Some disagree. It can be argued that allowing the status of statelessness allows a second best option to be adopted rather than pursuing the real goal, of access to citizenship. Indeed, the right to a citizenship is something already found in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The usefulness of the statelessness status as an interim between lack of any status and citizenship can also be seen in cases of de facto statelessness. De facto statelessness refers to people who are in fact stateless, even if they do not obviously meet the definitions in the law (an allocation of status based on the strict legal definition is referred to as de jure). That is, while a person may in theory have a citizenship, they are unable to make use of it. For many working in this area, there is little difference between de facto and de jure statelessness since if a person is unable to make use of his or her citizenship, it is because he or she is not considered a citizen for all practical purposes.
One example of this, in a project that UNU-GCM has been working on, is that of refused asylum seekers who cannot be deported from their country of attempted asylum because of barriers imposed by their country of origin. Such persons, without access to refugee status and without access to any other status, may find themselves unable to leave their new country, but at the same time unable to work or gain welfare support there. Access to a statelessness status would enable them to have documents of some form and to gain access to public welfare and labour markets in a context where full citizenship is unlikely to be available.
Stateless persons are often among the most vulnerable, disenfranchised and impoverished within a society. They can lack access to national assistance schemes, some or all of the labour market and medical and other welfare goods. They may be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention and may lack access to legal systems. It is crucial, therefore, to ensure that stateless persons are included in the development of global goals relating to human development, poverty eradication and access to rights.
The UNHCR launch of the campaign to end statelessness also comes at an important time in the global agenda, as the time period of the Millennium Development Goals will soon come to an end and plans are currently being developed for the new set of goals, the Secretary General’s Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. It will be crucial, within this system, to ensure that the needs of noncitizens, and particularly stateless persons, are taken into account in these global processes.
Citizenship, or some form of documented status within a state, is still needed for many basic rights to be obtained. The statelessness determination procedure is aimed at giving people an interim way to access their rights. However, this can only ever be an intermediate solution and the final aim must be, as UNHCR has today made clear, to END STATELESSNESS — and if possible, by 2024.
This article summarizes work carried out as part of the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility research programme on Statelessness and Transcontinental Migration. In particular, it presents material developed in the series of Policy Reports produced in this area. You can also consult the UNU Migration Network for more findings in the area of migration and citizenship.