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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - In legal limbo: asylum-seekers and statelessness

Refugees Magazine, 1 May 1996

Refugees and asylum-seekers

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of armed conflicts and ethnic clashes in several CIS countries have resulted in forced population displacements (including refugees and internally displaced people) that are unprecedented both in terms of the number of people affected and the complexity of the issues.

In addition, all CIS countries are confronted with the new challenge of coping with the arrival of asylum-seekers from non-CIS countries (in particular Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola and Zaire). Afghans as many as 200,000 of whom are estimated to be living in CIS countries constitute the largest group of non-CIS asylum-seekers.

The refugee population in the CIS region has a number of unusual features, linked to the sudden and dramatic change of identity of the state in which they are living. They include a large group of 'refugees sur place' people who arrived in the USSR either by choice, or as a result of bilateral agreements, and were subsequently stranded in the successor states as a result of changes within their own country, or in the relationship between their home country and their newly metamorphosed host country. Examples of refugees sur place include former students from countries that were within the Soviet sphere of influence, children of communist Afghan officials (including many orphans) and North Korean timber workers.

As of mid-April, only four CIS countries had acceded to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (with a fifth, Kyrgyzstan, on the verge of doing so). Only four have adopted sound national legislation on refugees. However, even for these states, the implementation of international obligations deriving from accession to the 1951 Convention and/or the adoption of national refugee legislation poses a serious problem: as yet, none of the countries possesses sufficient institutional capacity to fully translate the national and international laws into consistent everyday practice.

The consequence of this absence of sound legislation, or its imperfect implementation, is that, in almost all CIS countries (with the possible exception of Tajikistan), non-CIS asylum-seekers do not have access to a refugee status determination procedure, do not enjoy the protection of their asylum country, and have no legal status nor any social or economic rights.

CIS refugees have in general found protection in their country of nationality (for instance ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan moving to Armenia), and governments are in the process of identifying durable solutions for each group. However, in many CIS countries, existing regulations that restrict freedom of movement and choice of place of residence constitute a major obstacle to the successful local integration of refugees and IDPs from within the CIS region, as well as refugees from non-CIS countries.


In December 1991, Soviet citizenship ceased to exist, leaving 287 million people in need of a new identity. One of the primary tasks of the newly independent states has been to define precisely who their citizens are, and to establish new rules for the granting of citizenship.

CIS countries have, broadly speaking, gone about this in two different ways. Several governments (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and to some extent Moldova) have chosen the so-called 'zero option,' according to which all those who were permanent residents when the new law entered into force were counted as citizens. Some other governments (including most of the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan) have employed the concept of nationality used by the former USSR, and only granted citizenship to those people who had been considered as nationals before independence.

Given the different criteria used by the successor states of the USSR for the constitution of their citizenry and the granting of citizenship criteria that are sometimes conflicting or contradictory some groups of people have been left out and are, as a result, effectively stateless. This is the current position facing some of the formerly deported peoples, for example some Meskhetians and Crimean Tatars, who had not managed to return to their country of origin before the Soviet Union dissolved.

It is also the case for certain groups living in countries where the criterion of the previous nationality has been used: as they were not considered part of the national group, they have not been granted the citizenship of the successor state. If their state of ancestral origin belongs to the 'zero option' group, and they were not permanent residents at the time of entry into force of the citizenship law, they fail to qualify for citizenship there as well. Some Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Central Asia are among those who fall into this category.

Statelessness can result in displacement, but only when it is combined with other factors (such as conflict, a rise in inter-ethnic tensions or economic insecurity). Because of the lack of legal protection from clearly identified national authorities, stateless people may be tempted to move in order to find such protection elsewhere one of the reasons why many people have been leaving Central Asia. However, others in the same situation prefer to stay, either because they do not feel particularly threatened, or because they feel a move will leave them financially worse off.

CIS countries that have ratified selected international instruments

1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees
Russian Federation

1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness


1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Russian Federation

1949 Geneva Conventions
1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child

All CIS countries




UNHCR country pages

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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