Legal Catch-22 leaves newborn child with citizenship "unknown"

Telling the Human Story, 29 December 2011

© UNHCR/Gy. Sopronyi
The right to nationality is an internationally accepted fundamental human right yet Glody's status remains unclear.

BUDAPEST, Hungary, December 29 (UNHCR) "Mother and father Congolese, the citizenship of the child unknown," reads the entry for nationality on the birth certificate of Glody. The three-month-old boy is one of those children born to refugee parents in Hungary and so is registered with unknown citizenship.

"I feel at a loss… no one can tell me what it means, but a word like 'unknown' never means good," said Glody's father, 37-year-old Leon Mukaba, as his youngest son slept peacefully in his lap.

Mukaba fled his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo about four years ago after falling afoul of the authorities due to his political views. Two years later, after he was granted refugee status in Hungary, his wife, Céline, and their three children were able to join him through the family reunification programme.

Today the family of six is building a new life in the capital, Budapest. Together they wrestle with Hungarian, said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Mukaba works shifts in a warehouse, while Céline cares for the baby, picks up the older children at public school and manages the paperwork required to get medical care, receive a family allowance, and pay the rent and utilities in their new home.

One of those documents is the birth certificate for Glody. While acknowledging that he was born in Hungary in September 2011, it leaves him a citizen of no country a boy too young to crawl or speak caught in an undeserved Catch-22.

Under the current policy, a child born to foreigners on Hungarian soil is generally not entitled to Hungarian citizenship. Instead, the parents are expected to furnish proof of the child's foreign citizenship in the form of a certificate issued by the home country -so that it can be recorded on the birth certificate. Otherwise, the citizenship must be registered as "unknown".

Yet parents who have been forced to flee their homeland may not be able to obtain such documentation easily. Contacting the authorities in their home country might put their lives in danger or jeopardize their refugee status, as cooperation from these officials might imply that they no longer need protection.

Without such written proof, these newborn children are caught in a legal limbo.

"The well-being of children without citizenship is seriously at risk," said Ágnes Ambrus, UNHCR's protection officer in Hungary. "Without a legal bond with the state, they could be denied basic rights and services including access to education and health care."

Glody caught one break when he was two months old. To help maintain family unity, he was granted refugee status, which ensures him the same rights Hungarian children have, with a few exceptions.

But while refugee status may seem to be the solution, it is not a lasting one.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both state that everyone has the right to a nationality. In many cases, as with Congolese law, children automatically acquire the citizenship of their parents. But the situation of refugee children is particularly tricky because they are outside their home countries and cannot contact their authorities for proof of this legal bond. While many refugee families are never able to return home, some families still hope to do so one day.

Fortunately, Glody's refugee status provides him protection. For other refugees who are stateless, however, it is important that host countries grant citizenship to stateless children born on their territory.

Meanwhile, Mukaba is studying hard for the Hungarian citizenship exam. The test includes written and oral questions all in Hungarian about the country's politics, history and literature. Recognized refugees are eligible to apply for citizenship in Hungary after staying at least three years. If Mukaba passes the exam, his wife and children can be naturalized through him.

Determined and optimistic, he attends an exam preparation class every Thursday evening. "My favourite topic is the one on popular vote because I think that is important for a country," he said while reviewing some of the course material.

Then he pulled a Hungarian dictionary from a pile of books on his table to quickly look up the pronunciation of the word "hope".

"We are waiting now and we hope, the only thing we can do," he concluded.

By Eva Hegedus in Budapest, Hungary




Stateless People

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

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

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.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

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 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.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Displaced: Root CausesPlay video

Displaced: Root Causes

The High Commissioner's Dialogue, a two day conference will consider the root causes, war, natural hazards, persecution, statelessness, for the unprecedented number of displaced people around the world.
Hungary: Beginning to HelpPlay video

Hungary: Beginning to Help

Refugees and migrants continue to arrive from Serbia into Hungary in by the thousands. But now, thanks to requests from the Hungarian government,UNHCR is helping in bringing order and more speed to dealing with the newcomers.
Hungary: Stranded in BudapestPlay video

Hungary: Stranded in Budapest

Outside the Keleti train station in Budapest, over 3,000 refugees wait to continue their journey. For two days now, they have been stuck here after Hungarian authorities closed off the station, preventing all refugees from taking trains bound for Austria and Germany.