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.
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.
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.
- Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality.
- UNHCR currently has an official global figure of 5.8 million stateless people, but believes the true total is nearer 15 million.
- Nationality is usually granted through the recorded birth on a country’s territory, descent from another citizen or naturalization following marriage to one. Naturalization can also be granted after residence for a set length of time, or for other specific reasons. The rules vary from state to state.
- There are two separate UN Conventions focused directly on statelessness: the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness – but only 62 countries have ratified the former, and just 34 the latter.
- Some stateless people are also refugees, but most are not. Groups, or individuals, are sometimes stripped of their nationality as part of the process of persecution, and then flee as refugees. Or they are punished for fleeing by having their nationality removed. But many stateless people do not face persecution (and never move anywhere), and many refugees retain their nationality throughout their ordeal abroad.
- Statelessness is curable: there have been recent political and legislative breakthroughs for large groups of stateless people in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and above all in Nepal where 2.6 million people were issued citizenship certificates in just four months of 2007.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
William Spindler, Tel: +41 22 739 8332
Send an email
USEFUL WEB LINKS:
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