Statelessness: UNHCR urges Britain to ensure rights of the stateless

News Stories, 24 November 2011

© UNHCR/G.Constantine
Statelessness affects people all around the world. An image of a stateless woman in Ukraine taken by Greg Constantine, whose photos are on display at London's Royal Albert Hall.

LONDON, United Kingdom, November 24 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has called on the British government to do more to help stateless people in the United Kingdom and to ensure that their human rights are respected.

"Although statelessness is a global problem, it appears in the UK as well," Roland Schilling, UNHCR's representative to Britain, said earlier this week in London at the launch of the landmark new report, "Mapping Statelessness in the UK."

Schilling called upon the UK government "to address the challenge of statelessness and to ensure that the human rights of stateless people on UK territory are not infringed."

Although the exact number of stateless people in the UK is not known, about 200 people each year are recorded as stateless. Those who are not granted any kind of status are left in limbo, with no right to stay in the UK and no other country to which they can return. "This report maps their situation and recommends practical steps on how to find a solution for them," Schilling said.

Conducted by UNHCR and the British charity Asylum Aid to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the report looks at the number and situation of stateless people living in the UK and recommends legal solutions to the plight of the stateless.

UNHCR and Asylum Aid interviewed many stateless people who were forced to live on the street, with no accommodation and no right to remain in the UK, but with no other country to which they can turn for help. The research also uncovered stateless people who had been held in detention for months or separated from their spouses and children for many years in some cases, for more than a decade.

The report includes the voices of stateless people such as Tauy from Belarus, a government critic who came to the UK in 2002 and claimed asylum without success. The 59-year-old had exhausted his appeal rights by 2005, but he could not even leave the country because he could not establish entitlement to Belarusian or any other nationality.

"Give me a travel document and I will leave immediately you will not see me again. If I am undesirable here, then okay but allow me to go out," he told interviewers. "I am stateless."

The report finds that the stateless live at daily risk of human rights infringements. Many are trapped in a nightmarish legal limbo from which there is currently no escape. Being stateless is likened by one interviewee to being "a bird with nowhere to rest on the ground, but which can't spend his whole life in the sky."

The human cost of statelessness is immense. Tauy has not seen his four children for more than 10 years. "My life started in the Soviet gulag and now I have ended up stuck in this gulag," he said.

UNHCR, which has a mandate to protect the stateless, estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world. The refugee agency in August launched a global campaign to promote action against the scourge of statelessness and to encourage more states to accede to the two UN statelessness Conventions.

"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said at the time. The problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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.

"Mapping Statelessness" is the first research of its kind to ascertain the extent of the problem in the UK. The report launch is accompanied by a photographic exhibition by award-winning photographer Greg Constantine, "Nowhere People: the Global Face of Statelessness," which will be shown at London's Royal Albert Hall until December 5.

By Laura Padoan, London, United Kingdom

Read the Mapping Statelessness in The United Kingdom report




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.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

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 and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness: A Message from UNHCRPlay video

Statelessness: A Message from UNHCR

An address from UNHCR's Director of International Protection Volker Türk to mark International Human Rights Day and the launch of a new report on Statelessness in the United States.
UNHCR : Breakthrough on StatelessnessPlay video

UNHCR : Breakthrough on Statelessness

UNHCR's ministerial conference in Geneva takes a great step forward in resolving the issue of statelessness. On the sidelines of the meeting, Serbia and Turkmenistan acceded to the statelessness conventions.
Play video

"Experience Darfur"

Londoners are given the chance to see the world through the eyes of refugees. CNN's Sasha Herriman reports.