Ukraine, Sri Lanka provide models for solving statelessness

News Stories, 6 October 2004

© UNHCR/A.Hollmann
Once stateless, these young Crimean Tatars have now returned to Oktyabrskoe in southern Ukraine, where they are attending a national school.

GENEVA, Oct 6 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Wednesday reminded states that there are several million stateless people in the world today and introduced Ukraine and Sri Lanka as positive examples of countries that had found resolutions for large groups of stateless people.

Lubbers was speaking during a special panel discussion taking place at the annual meeting in Geneva of the UNHCR's governing Executive Committee. The panel was part of a year-long effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a UN convention dedicated to improving the lot of stateless people, and drawing more attention to the huge, but little-known problem of statelessness.

"We have it everywhere," said Lubbers, citing a recent UNHCR survey of statelessness which revealed that it is a problem all over the world. However, there is far less information available about how many people are affected and the precise nature of their predicament, than is the case with refugees. Many countries simply have no idea how many stateless people there are on their territory. In other cases, there is little information available because the groups concerned are a highly sensitive issue in the domestic landscape.

A stateless person is someone who is not considered a national by any state including the one where he or she is living and thus is not protected by any national legal system. Stateless people cannot vote. Even worse, they may be unable to marry legally, or register the birth of their children, thus perpetuating the cycle of statelessness. They are often deprived of the right to do things that other people living in the same country take completely for granted: go to school, get a job, open a bank account or travel abroad.

Large numbers of people who are stateless today became so as the result of conflicts or because the state they were born in changed in some way. This was the case, for example, when the Soviet Union was disbanded, and 15 independent states rose in its stead, as well as after the splitting up of the former Czechoslovakia and former Yugoslavia into smaller states. Some stateless groups were also created when a number of African and Asian countries became independent from their former colonial rulers, and have still not had their situation resolved 40 or 50 years later.

Lubbers also cited "disputes between states concerning the legal identity of individuals, protracted marginalization of specific groups within the society, or sometimes even worse stripping individuals or groups of their nationality" as other prime causes of statelessness. Finally, some people are stateless because, for some reason (for example because a child is not permitted to take its mother's nationality), they have fallen through the bureaucratic cracks and wake up in a Kafkaesque land where they do not belong: "non persons, legal ghosts" as they were once memorably described.

"The perpetuation of these situations leads to a deepening sense of disenfranchisement of these populations which can eventually lead to displacement," said Lubbers in his opening remarks to the panel and the wider audience of government representatives attending the Executive Committee meeting. He added that the survey also showed that "many states lack proper mechanisms to allow them pre-emptively to identify situations leading to statelessness."

Two of the panelists came from countries which have recently made a major and successful effort to resolve the situation of large groups of stateless people on their territory.

Refat Chubarov, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and deputy head of the Crimean Tartar Majlis, described how the government of the newly independent Ukraine brought in a succession of new legislation that has helped reintegrate the survivors and descendants of 250,000 Crimean Tartars who were rounded up by Stalin in 1944 and deported to Central Asia. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Crimean Tartars found themselves in a situation where, if they headed home to the Crimean Peninsula, they ceased to be citizens in Central Asia, but equally were unable to re-establish themselves legally as citizens in Ukraine. A new citizenship law adopted hurriedly after independence solved some problems, but also created new ones.

Over the past decade, however, Ukraine with help from UNHCR and with Chubarov himself playing a leading role has passed a string of legislation that has gradually untangled the bureaucratic nightmare that had snared the returning Tartars. The complexity of the problem was not just confined to Ukraine itself, but often involved the legislation of other states as well.

"Ukraine has constantly initiated contacts with other CIS states," said Chubarov, "to help returning deportees obtain citizenship." A major breakthrough in this respect came in the form of a 1999 agreement between Ukraine and Uzbekistan (where the majority of Crimean Tartars had been deported), which made it possible for them to leave Uzbekistan legally, and as a result begin the process of reinstating themselves legally in Ukraine.

"In January 2002," said Chubarov, "Ukraine adopted a new law on citizenship that has lifted all the remaining flaws in the legislation." By 2004, more than 300,000 Crimean Tartars had returned home and received Ukrainian citizenship.

Another member of the panel, Rahmiat Yogarajan, a former member of the Sri Lankan Parliament and Vice President of the Ceylon Worker's Congress, described how Sri Lanka has managed to resolve the problem of hundreds of thousands of people of Indian origin, who had originally been imported by the British to work in tea plantations, but were then made stateless by new legislation brought in after Ceylon as it was then known was granted independence in 1948 (see full story of Sri Lanka's efforts to resolve the problem of its stateless people tomorrow).

There are two UN conventions on statelessness: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which has been acceded to by only 57 states, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which a mere 29 states have acceded. This compares with the 1951 refugee Convention and its Protocol, which have been acceded to by 145 states in all.

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UNHCR country pages

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

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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.