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UNHCR launches new effort to reduce the number of stateless

Setting the Agenda, 10 March 2010

© UNHCR/G.Constantine
After years of trying to get Ukrainian citizenship, this man has given up hope, yet his partner is determined to find a way to regularize his status.

GENEVA, March 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has launched a new push to reduce the number of stateless people in the world, an estimated 12 million who face the danger of a wide-ranging loss of rights because they have no nationality recognized by any government.

"We have achieved a number of notable breakthroughs in the area of statelessness in recent years and have developed a significant body of expertise over time," said Volker Türk, director of UNHCR's Division of International Protection. "Nonetheless, statelessness remains a massive problem and an issue which often is poorly understood."

Although often overshadowed by UNHCR's more publicized work with the world's refugees and internally displaced people, reducing the number of stateless in the world has been part of the agency's core mandate since the 1970s.

In the past decade, UNHCR has supported citizenship campaigns and helped large numbers of people to obtain identity documents needed to confirm nationality in countries like Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Iraq and Côte d'Ivoire. It has also successfully promoted legal and administrative reform in many countries to prevent statelessness from occurring.

The launch of new initiatives on statelessness during 2010 and 2011 coincides with next year's 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This new activity will also form a key component of the 2011 celebrations marking UNHCR's 60th anniversary.

The new programmes, including more training and guidance for staff and partners on statelessness, will help UNHCR achieve specific targets set for 2010-2011.

The agency aims to increase to 41 and 68 the number of countries that have ratified or acceded to the two key international conventions on statelessness: the 1961 agreement and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines a stateless person and extends specific rights.

In at least six countries, UNHCR intends to secure improved access to procedures that determine who is stateless and entitled to statelessness status in international law. Some countries have introduced this kind of procedure in recent years but many others have yet to do so.

In at least eight countries, UNHCR will secure better legislation to grant nationality to children who do not acquire any other nationality at birth. This is a fundamental safeguard contained in the 1961 Convention and in human rights treaties.

The overall goal is that at least half a million of the estimated 12 million stateless worldwide will have their nationality granted or confirmed by the end of 2011.

Although UNHCR statistics identify 6.6 million stateless individuals, the actual total is thought to be nearly double. Without nationality, people can find themselves without birth registration or identity documents and excluded from education, health care and employment. They can find their freedom of movement restricted and their hopes for social or economic development blocked.

There are many causes: people stripped of nationality by governments; children denied the right to acquire the nationality of a mother; discrimination against specific groups; disintegration of states and emergence of new ones; gaps in old laws that have never been closed.

"We need to undertake a more systematic effort to address this frequently ignored issue," said Türk. "There is growing interest among states, including donors and civil society, and this creates new opportunities for UNHCR to implement its mandate."

Read the report: Statelessness: UNHCR Action to Address Statelessness

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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

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

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