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The Excluded:  The Hidden World of the Stateless

Some stateless people – like these in a camp in Bangladesh – are also refugees. But most are not.
Some stateless people – like these in a camp in
Bangladesh – are also refugees. But most are not.
UNHCR/G.M.B. Akash

Up to 15 million people – the population of a medium-sized country – may be “stateless,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Yet hardly anyone is aware of the scale of the problem, or even what being stateless involves.

The Story

Statelessness is a corrosive, soul-destroying condition that can colour almost every aspect of a person’s life. People who are not recognized as citizens of any state may be unable to go to school, work legally, own property, get married, or travel. They may find it difficult to enter hospital, and impossible to open a bank account or receive a pension. If someone robs or rapes them, they may not be able to lodge a complaint, because legally they do not exist. Officially, very often they do not even have a name.

Stateless people can be found in all the corners of the planet – in developed as well as developing countries. There are many ways to become stateless: some are stateless because of actions taken long ago, and other stateless people are being born – or created by mistake – every day. Millions are stateless because the country where they or their ancestors were born has been created, conquered, divided, dissolved, decolonized, or freed. Whenever a state is modified in some such fundamental way, the issue of who is – and who is not – a citizen comes to the fore. Those who fall through the cracks during this process often have nowhere else to go. Other people do not have (or lose) their nationality because of the unintentional side-effects of badly designed laws, poor birth registration systems, other administrative oversights, or simply because of a clash of different legislations in different states. A sizeable minority are the victims of a more pernicious form of statelessness: the deliberate exclusion of entire groups because of some political, religious or ethnic discrimination.

The Context


United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
William Spindler, Tel: +41 22 739 8332
Send an email

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

UNHCR’s suggested reading on statelessness

REFUGEES magazine, No.147 (Issue 3, 2007) – Special report on statelessness

Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 25 No.3 (2006)

Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians

Refworld – Other Links on Nationality / Statelessness

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons

1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

ReliefWeb – Op-ed by António Guterres and Louise Arbour on Statelessness, Nov. 2007

UN News Service