UNHCR looks to legislation to resolve statelessness in the United States

News Stories, 9 June 2010

© UNHCR/H. Farhad
UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, T. Alexander Aleinikoff, speaks at a Capitol Hill event in Washington to highlight statelessness in the United States.

WASHINGTON, DC., United States, June 9 (UNHCR) A campaign to bring greater attention to statelessness in the United States and to encourage the passage of legislation that would address the issue was launched Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by UNHCR and Refugees International.

The centrepiece of the event, which took place on Capitol Hill, was the screening of the video, "Statelessness in the US: Searching for Citizenship," produced by the Washington office of the UN refugee agency.

Stateless individuals are those who are not considered citizens of any country. Speaking at the event, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff called statelessness "a silent denial of rights," while stressing UNHCR's commitment to addressing the issue globally and in the US. "Imagine the feeling of having no country you belong to," he added.

Current US law does not provide stateless people with any legal status. Unable to return to their former countries, stateless individuals living in the United States risk being detained and must apply annually for permission to work.

They also face travel restrictions, which can even keep them from leaving their state. They must also routinely report to immigration officials a requirement that can last for decades and, potentially, for life.

The Refugee Protection Act of 2010, introduced by Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, would amend US immigration law to create a mechanism for stateless individuals to become lawful permanent residents and eventually American citizens.

The legislation would provide a critical means of restoring basic rights to individuals who, through no fault of their own, have been stripped of something central to a person's identity citizenship and the legal bond between individual and state that goes with it.

There are several ways a person may become stateless while in the United States. One of the most common is for the nationality laws of their home country to change while they are in the United States, such that their home country no longer recognizes them as a citizen.

For example, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, some individuals in the United States as Soviet citizens were then not recognized as nationals of the newly formed independent states. When it came time for these individuals to return, the newly formed state would not accept them back. In some circumstances, a country may refuse to recognize nationals of its country, effectively rendering them stateless.

With the launch of its film on statelessness, UNHCR is aiming to bring greater attention to this under-reported issue while advocating for a durable solution to statelessness in the United States.

Speaking at Tuesday's event, Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to the United States' record of assisting the displaced around the world in calling for legislation to address statelessness in the US.

"America resettles more refugees and grants asylum to more people than any country the in the world," he said. "Given this tradition we must also take action to solve the problem of statelessness. American must lead by example."

By Tim Irwin in Washington, DC., United States

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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.

Advocacy

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The Continuity Of Risk

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Stateless People

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Related Internet Links

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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.

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