UNHCR urges more support for statelessness treaty on 50th anniversary

News Stories, 30 August 2011

© UNHCR/G.Amarasinghe
Thanks to policy and law reform in Sri Lanka, these young "hill Tamils" have broken the cycle of statelessness faced by their ancestors who were brought from India to work on tea estates nearly 200 years ago.

GENEVA, August 30 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has reiterated its call for governments to sign on to two international treaties on statelessness, an important step towards ending the legal limbo faced by millions of people without a nationality.

The call to action comes on the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness on Tuesday. Together with the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, it provides a legal framework to prevent statelessness from occuring and to protect people who are already stateless.

UNHCR estimates there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world. With no nationality or status, they are often denied basic rights and access to education, health care, housing and employment.

While the problem is huge and affects many countries, governments have so far shown too little commitment to resolve it. Of the 193 UN member states, just 38 have acceded to the 1961 Convention while only 66 are parties to the 1954 Convention.

"Everyone should have a nationality: It is a fundamental right," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards at a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. "Millions of people around the world continue to suffer the consequences of not having a nationality. And in an age of increasing labour mobility, for many people, children in particular, the risks of losing one's nationality are growing."

Fifty years after the 1961 Convention was adopted, the factors driving it have not changed. In a recently published historical overview of the 1961 Convention, Oxford University professor Guy S. Goodwin-Gill noted that when the UN's International Law Commission first convened in 1952 to develop a treaty to prevent and reduce statelessness, "Statelessness was seen as 'undesirable' from the perspective of orderly international relations, for every individual should be 'attributed to some State'; and it was also undesirable for the individual, because of its 'precariousness'."

These are the same arguments for states to accede to both statelessness conventions today: set minimum global standards, help resolve conflict of law issues and prevent people from falling through gaps between citizenship laws. It is a known fact that preventing statelessness and protecting stateless people can contribute to international peace and security and prevent forced displacement. Resolving statelessness can also promote the rule of law and help better regulate international migration. It is therefore in the interests of states to become party to the two conventions.

In recent months, Croatia, Panama, the Philippines and Turkmenistan have made the decision to become party to one or both of the statelessness conventions.

"We expect that a number of states will either accede to one or both of the statelessness conventions this year or pledge to do so at a ministerial-level meeting of UN member states being held in Geneva in December," said Edwards. "Nonetheless we are today repeating our call to governments, advocates, media, and individuals for a redoubling of efforts so that more states sign on to the statelessness conventions, reform nationality laws, and resolve the problem."

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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.

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

Advocacy

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

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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

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