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Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Statelessness: Does anyone want these people ?

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1998


The problem of statelessness has become a live issue again

The family had been in exile for decades, but when the Crimean Tatars eventually returned to their ancestral homeland they dreamed of a new beginning. Instead, the Tatars found themselves virtual non persons. The family was not allowed to own property, find work in nearby towns or fill even menial farm jobs. During the harsh winter months, four generations of the family huddled together in a single room. When the family's father suffered a fatal heart attack searching for wild berries and roots to feed his wife and children, there was no dignity in death; without the proper papers he could not be officially buried.

The Tatar family members are among countless people around the world who do not have a country they can call home. They are persons who are not recognized by any state as citizens. Trapped in this legal limbo, they enjoy only minimal access to national or international legal protection or to such basic rights as health, education and political choice. Effectively, they are outcasts from the global political system of the nation-state which has evolved in the last century.

International Conventions were established in 1954 (Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons) and 1961 (Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness) and in 1974 the U.N. General Assembly asked UNHCR to provide limited legal assistance to stateless persons. In those first postwar decades few countries even acceded to the Conventions, but in the last few years statelessness has again become a 'live' issue on the international agenda.

The problem has been fuelled by a bewildering array of complex and disparate developments ranging from sudden and sweeping political changes such as the breakup of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, disagreements about descent, ownership, tribal affiliations, the role of women and children and power balances between different ethnic groups.


The Tatar family mentioned above, for instance, was among an estimated 250,000 ethnic Crimeans originally deported by Stalin in 1944 who returned 'home' following the collapse of the Soviet Union to what is modern-day Ukraine. An estimated 17,000 Tatars came back stateless though the great majority had already acquired another nationality such as Uzbek citizenship or were granted Ukrainian citizenship at independence in 1991. The government faced the tricky dilemma of how to successfully integrate large numbers of people who, while enjoying strong historical links with the region, had few legal ties and thus few 'rights' such as access to work and social services. Many returning Tatars had their own headache: whether to run the risk of surrendering their existing citizenship with no guarantee they would obtain Ukrainian nationality.

When Czechoslovakia split into two sovereign states in 1992-93, some people became caught in a strange no-man's land. They voted in the new Czech Republic where they had lived physically for years, but overnight they were deemed to be citizens of the neighbouring Slovak Republic. To qualify for Czech citizenship, they had first to establish their Slovak status, renounce this citizenship making themselves temporarily stateless, and then apply for Czech nationality. If they were refused, they remained stateless as happened to some Roma (gypsies) and were then dependent on Slovak authorities agreeing to reinstate their Slovak identities.

A world away in Asia, a group of several hundred ethnic Chinese who fled Viet Nam to Hong Kong during the boat people exodus in the 1970s and 1980s, remain trapped in a similar legal and politically charged labyrinth today. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boatpeople were resettled in new countries or eventually went back to Viet Nam and more than a half million ethnic Chinese who fled directly to the People's Republic were integrated there. These Chinese, however, became, in legal terms, "unclaimed." Hanoi refused to take them back because they were not citizens, China turned them away, and they did not qualify for residency status in Hong Kong which subsequently reverted to Chinese rule.


Even if a country agrees to consider a stateless person for citizenship, rulings are often influenced by the state's historical, political and philosophical makeup. In some cases families who have lived in a particular country for generations are refused citizenship because of their ethnicity, religion, race or even social and linguistic backgrounds. When governments change or are overthrown, people can be retroactively stripped of citizenship and property, detained and finally expelled as happened with the Asian population in Uganda when Idi Amin seized power there in the 1970s. During the Cold War years, Romanians and Soviets who wanted to emigrate first had to renounce their citizenship with no guarantee they could obtain a new nationality. Many ended up 'stranded' without a country to call home.

Inheriting a nationality can also be problematic and in cases where a father is stateless or has divorced, the mother is often unable to pass her nationality on to children even though they are born in her own country. Failure or refusal to register a child's birth can result in statelessness.

As the statelessness problem became more pronounced, a General Assembly resolution in 1996 mandated UNHCR to broaden its role, helping promote the avoidance and elimination of statelessness on a global scale. UNHCR established a specific 'statelessness post' within the organization's Division of International Protection and cooperated with states, international and regional organizations to help accession to existing Conventions, strengthen national laws and promote new agreements. It worked with the Council of Europe on the 1997 European Convention on Nationality, the International Law Commission on the draft Declaration on Nationality following State Succession, the Office of the High Representative in drafting new citizenship laws for Bosnia-Herzegovina and the OSCE in developing programmes for minorities.

UNHCR worked closely with Ukrainian authorities, launching a widespread public information campaign including television videos, posters and brochures and establishing a local non-governmental organization named Assistance to offer legal advice to the Tatars on citizenship issues. The results have been encouraging. In 1997-98, 4,500 returnees were given Ukrainian citizenship compared with 150 between 1992-96. The Czech Republic, with UNHCR assistance, began a process of reviewing individual cases in that country and hundreds of of individuals who previously were unable to acquire Czech citizenship had their cases successfully reviewed. This has set a precedent for the development of similar programmes in other countries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines that "Everyone has the right to a nationality." Each state has a nationality law and citizenship is one of the most precious gifts any government can bestow. But in an era of increasing ethnic tension, mass migrations of people and governments ever more reluctant to 'welcome' refugees or other groups, the number of stateless persons appears bound to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)




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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