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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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.

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Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

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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.

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