Statelessness: UNHCR hails new support, urges more action on treaties

News Stories, 23 September 2011

© UN Office of Legal Affairs Treaty Section
UNHCR chief António Guterres congratulates Croatian President Ivo Josipović on the accession as Patricia O'Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, looks on.

GENEVA, September 23 (UNHCR) Three additional countries have formally adopted international legal standards to keep stateless people from falling into legal limbo a sign that the campaign against statelessness is gaining momentum but still needs considerable international support.

This week, Croatia, Nigeria and the Philippines deposited their instruments of accession/ratification at an annual treaty event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The treaties concerned are the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines who is considered stateless and establishes minimum standards of treatment, as well as the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness.

Up to 12 million people are believed to be stateless worldwide. They have no nationality, usually lack valid identity documents, and are often denied even the most basic rights, including access to health care, education, housing and jobs.

Today, the bulk of new stateless cases involve children born to stateless parents. This can be prevented if more countries accede to the 1961 Convention and offer citizenship to stateless children at birth.

On Thursday, High Commissioner António Guterres welcomed Croatia as the 40th state to become party to the 1961 Convention. Guterres congratulated Croatian President Ivo Josipović after he submitted documents to the UN and confirmed his government's commitment to prevent future cases of statelessness. Croatia has an estimated 1,700 citizens of the former Yugoslavia who are either stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. UNHCR is working to provide them with legal aid to resolve the issue.

Depositing Nigeria's instruments on Tuesday, President Goodluck Jonathan was quoted in Nigerian media as saying that accession was a demonstration of the "country's resolve to ensure that everyone has an effective right to nationality." Given Nigeria's diplomatic weight, UNHCR expects the country's accession to boost efforts to promote accession and address statelessness in Africa.

With this week's developments, the Philippines has become the first country in Southeast Asia to become party to the 1954 Convention. "We are pleased to welcome the Philippines as the first country in the region that has committed to protecting the rights of stateless people," said Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR's representative in the Philippines. "We now have a country in Southeast Asia which tells the world: 'We care for the stateless'."

The Philippines has a long tradition of giving sanctuary to stateless people and there are legal mechanisms to regularise their status. Later this year, UNHCR and the authorities will join forces in an exercise to determine how many stateless people there are, and where they live in the country. The refugee agency is also supporting the government to amend its nationality legislation to prepare for accession to the 1961 Convention.

The Philippines actually was one of the first 23 countries to sign the 1954 Convention before it closed for signature on 31 Dec 1955, and has now ratified it to put it into effect. Other signatory states that have yet to ratify the 1954 Convention include Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. Signatory states that have not acceded to the 1961 Convention are the Dominican Republic, France and Israel. UNHCR is working with a number of these States to ensure that their signature of these conventions decades ago is followed by ratification.

In total, the numbers of states that are party to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions now stand at 68 and 40 respectively. These figures are disappointingly low given that the UN has 193 member states. International support is growing but it still lacks the critical mass to make a substantial difference in the global campaign against statelessness.

UNHCR is calling on governments to seriously consider acceding to both treaties. The agency is also urging those states that are considering accession to start procedures at the national level.

More countries are expected to follow the example set by Croatia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Panama which acceded in June and become party to one or both of the statelessness conventions. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention, UNHCR will hold a treaty ceremony during the ministerial-level meeting in Geneva in early December. There are already indications from a number of states that they will accede or pledge to do so at this event.

With reporting by Yanya Viskovich in New York and Tom Temprosa in Manila




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.

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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