New Campaign: UNHCR launches global campaign for the stateless millions

News Stories, 25 August 2011

© UNHCR/G.Constantine
In Search of Identity: An ailing 75-year-old Bihari sits alone in his room in a camp in Bangladesh.

GENEVA, August 25 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency today launches a global campaign to promote action against statelessness, a scourge for millions of people worldwide.

"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. "This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world. Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalizing whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict," he added in a message to launch the campaign, which comes ahead of the 50th anniversary on Tuesday of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world today, but defining exact numbers is problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive.

These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo. This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world.

António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

To overcome this, UNHCR is raising awareness about the international legal definition while improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations. UNHCR has found the problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. However pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world and it is a problem that crosses all borders and walks of life.

There are numerous causes of statelessness, many of them entrenched in legalities, but the human consequences can be dramatic. Because stateless people are technically not citizens of any country, they are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, and health care. They may not be able to own property, open a bank account, get married legally, or register the birth of a child. Some face long periods of detention, because they cannot prove who they are or where they come from.

State succession carries a risk that some people will be excluded from citizenship if these issues are not considered early on in the process of separation. The world welcomed the birth of South Sudan in July, but it remains to be seen how new citizenship laws in both the north and south will be implemented.

"The dissolution of states, formation of new states, transfer of territories and redrawing of boundaries were major causes of statelessness over the past two decades. Unless new laws were carefully drafted, many people were left out," said Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at UNHCR.

In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav federation and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless. While most cases have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases where the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. And in some countries, women run a risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also do not allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

But, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya and Tunisia have all in recent years amended their laws to grant women the same rights as men to retain their nationality and pass it on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a UNHCR goal this year.

An underlying theme of most stateless situations is ethnic and racial discrimination that leads to exclusion, where political will is often lacking to resolve the problem. Groups excluded from citizenship since states gained independence or were established include the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand and the Bidoon in the Persian Gulf States. In Europe, thousands of Roma continue to be stateless in various countries.

Meanwhile, Croatia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Panama have all decided in recent months to become party to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness. Yet the issue remains a low priority in many countries due to political sensitivities.

The number of states party to the 1961 Convention and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is low. As of today, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention, which defines who is considered to be a stateless person and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 are parties to the 1961 Convention, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness.

"After 50 years, these Conventions have attracted only a small number of states,'' said High Commissioner Guterres. "It's shameful that millions of people are living without a nationality a fundamental human right. The scope of the problem and the dire effects it has on those concerned goes almost unnoticed. We must change that. Governments must act to reduce the overall numbers of stateless."

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The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine

Nationality might seem like a universal birthright, but it is estimated that up to 12 million people around the world are struggling to get along without it. They do not possess a nationality nor enjoy its legal benefits. They fall into a legal limbo; they are stateless. This often leaves them unable to do the basic things most people take for granted such as registering the birth of a child, travelling, going to school, opening a bank account or owning property.

Statelessness has a variety of causes. Some populations were excluded from citizenship at the time of independence from colonial rule. Others fall victim to mass denationalization. In some countries, women cannot confer nationality on their children. Sometimes, because of discrimination, legislation fails to guarantee citizenship for certain ethnic groups.

The problem is global. Under its statelessness mandate, UNHCR is advising stateless people on their rights and assisting them in acquiring citizenship. At the government level, it is supporting legal reform to prevent people from becoming stateless. With partners it undertakes citizenship campaigns to help stateless people to acquire nationality and documentation.

Photographer Greg Constantine is an award-winning photojournalist from the United States. In 2005, he moved to Asia and began work on his project, "Nowhere People," which documents the plight of stateless people around the world. His work has received a number of awards, including from Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, the Amnesty International Human Rights Press Awards (Hong Kong), the Society of Publishers in Asia, and the Harry Chapin Media Award for Photojournalism. Greg was a co-winner of the Osborn Elliot Prize for Journalism in Asia, presented annually by the Asia Society. Work from "Nowhere People" has been widely published and exhibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Kenya. He is based in Southeast Asia.

The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine

Viet Nam: Without a CountryPlay video

Viet Nam: Without a Country

In the 1970s, thousands of people fled to Viet Nam to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Some of those who stayed in places Like Ho Chi Minh City became stateless.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

#IBELONG

IBELONG
Sign and share our open letter to end statelessness in ten years.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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 Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Statelessness in Lebanon: Leal's StoryPlay video

Statelessness in Lebanon: Leal's Story

"To be stateless is like you don't exist, you simply don't exist. You live in a parallel world with no proof of your identity," says Leal.
Statelessness in Montenegro: Nusret's StoryPlay video

Statelessness in Montenegro: Nusret's Story

Nusret, aged 49, is a stateless man living in Montenegro: "I feel like I'm quarantined," he says.
#IBELONG: End Statelessness NowPlay video

#IBELONG: End Statelessness Now