Preventing Statelessness: Southeast Asian countries share lessons

News Stories, 29 October 2010

© UNHCR/C. Doan
Nguyen Thi Phuong, right, was stateless when this photo was taken at her mother's house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007, after her marriage to a Taiwanese man ended. Through a new Vietnamese nationality law she got her citizenship back.

BANGKOK, Thailand, Oct. 29 (UNHCR) Cambodia's dramatic success in documenting its citizens after the devastating Khmer Rouge years and Viet Nam's new nationality law that has rescued thousands of "economic brides" from stateless limbo have been shared with experts from nine Southeast Asian countries as model ways countries can prevent and reduce statelessness.

Yim Sam Ol, from Cambodia's Ministry of Interior, told some 60 experts at a Bangkok roundtable of his country's struggle to rebuild after all citizen registration documents were destroyed between 1975 and 1979. Using mobile teams to reach into the most remote areas, Cambodia managed to raise the percentage of birth certificates issued from five percent to more than 90 percent in just over two years.

"Birth registration is an important measure that can prevent statelessness," said Mark Manly, head of UNHCR's statelessness unit and one of the organizers of the roundtable, co-hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and UNHCR.

The two-day meeting, which ended Friday, was financed by the European Commission and comes as UNHCR begins a year-long campaign to help the world's estimated 12 million stateless people and encourage more countries to sign up to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

"The Cambodian registration campaign underlined the link between Cambodia and its citizens, which is an important step to prevent statelessness if Cambodians ever find themselves abroad without documents," Manly said.

At the same time, he added, "lack of documentation does not make you stateless." Manly explained that refugees, migrant workers and other displaced people often can't prove their status, but actually do have citizenship somewhere.

True statelessness comes about when a person has no claim to nationality in any country, sometimes because of dissolution of states (such as the former Soviet Union), or often because of a conflict of laws concerning citizenship and marriage.

Thousands of Vietnamese women who married Taiwanese men were left stateless because they were forced to renounce their citizenship in order to apply for citizenship in Taiwan. But if their marriages broke up before they got their new nationality, they and often their children came back to Viet Nam stateless, even in the country of their birth.

In 2009, Viet Nam passed a new nationality law that allows for dual citizenship and prevents women from falling into that limbo. Viet Nam has also systematically set about restoring citizenship to its stateless divorced women, most of who married for economic reasons.

Trinh Thi Hong Anh, from Viet Nam's Social Affairs Ministry, told the gathering that her ministry also intends launch a media campaign warning women about the potential hazards of marrying abroad. Vocational training and counseling will also be offered to women and children who come back home after failed marriages.

Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia's representative to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said ASEAN is quite open to learning from the whole world, "but we can also learn well from neighboring countries."

"We see a lot of similarities in terms of values and norms, so some of the lessons are more applicable because of similar values in Southeast Asian countries," he said.

Taking "best practices" from the meeting, Djamin said, the next step is to see what can be done to identify, prevent and reduce statelessness by working at a regional level.

By Kitty McKinsey in Bangkok




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

Stateless People

A tough task determining the true number of stateless people

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

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

Stateless in Beirut

Since Lebanon was established as a country in the 1920s there has been a long-standing stateless population in the country.

There are three main causes for this: the exclusion of certain persons from the latest national census of 1932; legal gaps which deny nationality to some group of individuals; and administrative hurdles that prevent parents from providing proof of the right to citizenship of their newborn children.

Furthermore, a major reason why this situation continues is that under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, only men can; meaning a child with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother will inherit their father's statelessness.

Although exact numbers are not known, it is generally accepted that many thousands of people lack a recognized nationality in Lebanon and the problem is growing due to the conflict in Syria. Over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict and with over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country this number will increase.

Registering a birth in Lebanon is very complicated and for Syrian parents can include up to five separate administrative steps, including direct contact with the Syrian government. As the first step in establishing a legal identity, failure to properly register a child's birth puts him or her at risk of statelessness and could prevent them travelling with their parents back to Syria one day.

The consequences of being stateless are devastating. Stateless people cannot obtain official identity documents, marriages are not registered and can pass their statelessness on to their children Stateless people are denied access to public healthcare facilities at the same conditions as Lebanese nationals and are unable to own or to inherit property. Without documents they are unable to legally take jobs in public administrations and benefit from social security.

Children can be prevented from enrolling in public schools and are excluded from state exams. Even when they can afford a private education, they are often unable to obtain official certification.

Stateless people are not entitled to passports so cannot travel abroad. Even movement within Lebanon is curtailed, as without documents they risk being detained for being in the country unlawfully. They also do not enjoy basic political rights as voting or running for public office.

This is the story of Walid Sheikhmouss Hussein and his family from Beirut.

Stateless in Beirut

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The High Commissioner's Dialogue, a two day conference will consider the root causes, war, natural hazards, persecution, statelessness, for the unprecedented number of displaced people around the world.
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"To be stateless is like you don't exist, you simply don't exist. You live in a parallel world with no proof of your identity," says Leal.
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Statelessness in Montenegro: Nusret's Story

Nusret, aged 49, is a stateless man living in Montenegro: "I feel like I'm quarantined," he says.