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Protracted Stateless Situations

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© UNHCR / S. Kritsanavarin

In many countries, statelessness situations have gone unresolved for decades - they have become "protracted." This is particularly the case where large groups of people were excluded from citizenship at the time of independence.

Several protracted situations have been resolved in recent years. In Sri Lanka, for example, the so-called Hill Tamils, descendants of immigrants from India and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries, were able to acquire or confirm Sri Lankan nationality. First the national legislation governing nationality was amended, then a mass information campaign and community outreach efforts by mobile teams got the word out to affected populations.

The problem of the Biharis - Urdu speakers of Bangladesh who were mainly descendants of Muslims from the province of Bihar prior to partition of India in 1947 - was resolved after a landmark decision by the High Court in Dhaka in 2007 reconfirmed that they were Bangladeshi citizens. The government stepped up the registration of voters and provided them with identity cards with the result that many voted for the first time in December 2008 general elections.

Where a solution is not yet in sight, UNHCR pursues a three-pronged approach. First, the refugee agency attempts to break the cycle of statelessness by advocating for changes in the legal code designed to safeguard nationality. Such safeguards ensure that children born to stateless people acquire a nationality, usually of the country where they were born and where they have always lived.

Second, UNHCR promotes the integration of stateless people into society: the smaller the differences between stateless people and citizens, the easier it is to find comprehensive solutions.

Third, UNHCR raises public awareness of statelessness and its consequences in order to advocate more effectively for necessary changes. Stateless populations often organize themselves to press for an improvement in their situation. Efforts of this kind were crucial in creating the political will to put an end to decades of discrimination in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.