Statelessness treaties gain support but need stronger boost

Briefing Notes, 23 September 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 23 September 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

This week has seen quiet but significant developments on the sidelines of the General Assembly session in New York with regard to statelessness. Three countries, Croatia, Nigeria, and the Philippines, have all become parties to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness.

This important step shows the three countries' commitment to tackling statelessness. It also provides them with the legal tools to identify and protect stateless people, as well as to prevent and reduce the problem.

Up to 12 million people are believed to be stateless worldwide. They have no nationality, usually lack valid identity documents, and are often denied even the most basic rights, including access to health care, education, housing and jobs.

To address these problems, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines who is considered stateless and establishes minimum standards of treatment. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness.

Today, most new stateless cases involve children born to stateless parents. This can be prevented if more countries accede to the 1961 Convention and offer citizenship to children at birth.

With this week's accessions, the Philippines has become the first country in Southeast Asia to become party to the 1954 Convention. At the same time, Croatia is now party to both statelessness conventions, confirming its commitment to prevent future cases of statelessness. UNHCR is currently working with both governments to address the issue.

Given Nigeria's diplomatic weight, we expect the country's accession to boost efforts at the international level to promote accession and address statelessness in Africa.

With these accessions, the numbers of states that are party to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions now stand at 68 and 40 respectively. Given that the UN has 193 member states, these figures are still disappointingly low. International support is growing but we still lack the critical mass to make a substantial difference.

UNHCR is calling on governments to seriously consider acceding to both treaties. We also urge those states that are considering accession to start procedures at the national level.

We are hopeful that more countries will follow the example set by Croatia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Panama which acceded in June and become party to the two statelessness conventions. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention, UNHCR will hold a treaty ceremony during the ministerial-level meeting in Geneva in early December. We already have indications from a number of states that they will accede at this event.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106
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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

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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 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

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