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The Causes of Statelessness

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© UNHCR / G. Constantine

States are responsible for regulating nationality matters and deciding who is a national and who is not. They base their decisions on a person's connection with the country through birth, ancestry or residence. All stateless people have such links with at least one country, but do not possess a nationality due to legal reasons or discrimination.

At independence, new states have to define their body of citizens. In the past, nationality criteria were often based on ethnicity, which led to large populations being excluded. Subsequent legislation often based nationality on descent, thus forcing parents to pass on statelessness like a genetic disease. In some countries, similar policies of exclusion were introduced well after independence. In practice, equality in legislation is not a guarantee for full nationality rights where authorities refuse to issue nationality documentation to citizens based on ethnicity, language or religion.

In many states, women do not have the same nationality rights as men. When women cannot pass on their nationality, their children are at a heightened risk of statelessness if they cannot legally acquire the father's nationality, or if he is unable or unwilling seek nationality for these offspring. Furthermore, in some countries a woman cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign husband.

Another problem is that nationality laws drafted when states are created, or when territory is transferred (state succession), are often limited in scope and use deadlines. As a result, many people fall through the cracks and become stateless.

Incompatibilities in the application of two or more nationality laws can also lead to statelessness. Meanwhile, legislation in some countries allows loss or deprivation of nationality even where this would render a person stateless. Making the renunciation of a previous nationality a precondition for acquiring a new one also creates risks of statelessness.

For many people, inability to establish nationality has the same consequences as not having a nationality at all. Birth certificates are a key element for proof of nationality as they establish both descent and place of birth - as millions of births every year go unregistered, the risk of statelessness increases.