UNHCR launches campaign to combat statelessness

Press Releases, 25 August 2011

GENEVA, August 25, 2011 Around the world today there are millions of people who are not recognized as citizens of any country. On paper they don't exist anywhere. They are people without a nationality. They are stateless.

UNHCR is mandated to prevent statelessness. On August 25, we will launch a campaign to shed light on this often elusive issue aimed at decreasing the number of stateless worldwide. The campaign launch comes just days before the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness on August 30, 2011.

There are numerous causes of statelessness, many of them entrenched in legalities, but the human consequences can be dramatic. Because stateless people are technically not citizens of any country, they are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, and health care. They may not be able to own property, open a bank account, get married legally, or register the birth of a child. Some face long periods of detention, because they cannot prove who they are or where they come from.

"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," says António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world. Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalizing whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict."

UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world, but defining exact numbers is hugely problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive. To overcome this UNHCR is raising awareness about the international legal definition while improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations.

While the full scope of statelessness across the globe is only just becoming known, UNHCR has found the problem is particularly acute in South East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. However pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world and it's a problem that crosses all borders and walks of life.

New States

State succession carries a risk that some people will be excluded from citizenship if these issues are not considered early on in the process of separation. The world welcomed the birth of South Sudan in July, but it remains to be seen how new citizenship laws in both the north and south will be implemented.

"The dissolution of states, formation of new states, transfer of territories and redrawing of boundaries were major causes of statelessness over the past two decades. Unless new laws were carefully drafted, many people were left out," says Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at UNHCR.

In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless, with marginalized ethnic and social groups bearing the brunt. While most cases of statelessness have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands of persons remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Women and children at risk

An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases when the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. As a result the destitution and the exclusion of statelessness are visited upon yet another generation. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. And they are among the most vulnerable to statelessness. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. Women and their children in some countries run a particular risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also don't allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. States as diverse as Egypt (2004), Indonesia (2006), Bangladesh (2009), Kenya (2010), and Tunisia (2010) have amended their laws to grant women equal rights as men to retain their nationality and pass their nationality on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a particular goal of UNHCR's efforts surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Stateless Convention.

Ethnic discrimination

An underlying theme of most stateless situations is ethnic and racial discrimination that leads to exclusion, where political will is often lacking to resolve the problem. Groups excluded from citizenship since states gained independence or were established include the Muslim residents (Rohingya) of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand, the Bidoon in the Gulf States. While most Roma do have citizenship of the countries where they live, thousands continue to be stateless in various countries of Europe. Often such groups have become so marginalized that even when legislation changes to grant access to nationality, they encounter major obstacles to obtaining citizenship.

In recent months Croatia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Panama have all made the historic decision to become party to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness.

Yet the the issue remains a low priority in many countries due to political sensitivities surrounding statelessness. The number of parties to the two stateless conventions is an indicator of international commitment: As of August 25, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines who is considered to be a "stateless person" and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 states are parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness. The total number of UN member states is 193.

"After 50 years, these Conventions have attracted only a small number of states,'' says Mr. Guterres. "It's shameful that millions of people are living without a nationality a fundamental human right. The scope of the problem and the dire effects it has on those concerned goes almost unnoticed. We must change that. Governments must act to reduce the overall numbers of stateless."

While there are some success stories that have positively addressed statelessness, much more needs to be done. UNHCR aims to get the issue on the public agenda, encourage states to accede to the two stateless conventions, reform nationality laws and take additional measures to end statelessness.

Multimedia materials can be downloaded from http://www.unhcr.org/stateless/

For press queries outside of Geneva, contact details of all UNHCR press officers can be found at http://www.unhcr.org/4a09806215.html

Contact details of our Geneva press team are as follows:

UNHCR believes that even one person forced to flee war or persecution, is one too many. To mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the agency has launched the "1" campaign, which aims to humanize an issue often reduced to numbers by telling stories of forcibly displaced individuals and stateless people. For more information, go to http://www.unhcr.org/do1thing.




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.

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

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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 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.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

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