UNHCR launches campaign to combat statelessness

Press Releases, 25 August 2011

GENEVA, August 25, 2011 Around the world today there are millions of people who are not recognized as citizens of any country. On paper they don't exist anywhere. They are people without a nationality. They are stateless.

UNHCR is mandated to prevent statelessness. On August 25, we will launch a campaign to shed light on this often elusive issue aimed at decreasing the number of stateless worldwide. The campaign launch comes just days before the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness on August 30, 2011.

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.

"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," says António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "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."

UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world, but defining exact numbers is hugely problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive. To overcome this UNHCR is raising awareness about the international legal definition while improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations.

While the full scope of statelessness across the globe is only just becoming known, UNHCR has found the problem is particularly acute in South East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. However pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world and it's a problem that crosses all borders and walks of life.

New States

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," says Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at UNHCR.

In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless, with marginalized ethnic and social groups bearing the brunt. While most cases of statelessness have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands of persons remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Women and children at risk

An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases when the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. As a result the destitution and the exclusion of statelessness are visited upon yet another generation. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. And they are among the most vulnerable to statelessness. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. Women and their children in some countries run a particular risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also don't allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. States as diverse as Egypt (2004), Indonesia (2006), Bangladesh (2009), Kenya (2010), and Tunisia (2010) have amended their laws to grant women equal rights as men to retain their nationality and pass their nationality on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a particular goal of UNHCR's efforts surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Stateless Convention.

Ethnic discrimination

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 residents (Rohingya) of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand, the Bidoon in the Gulf States. While most Roma do have citizenship of the countries where they live, thousands continue to be stateless in various countries of Europe. Often such groups have become so marginalized that even when legislation changes to grant access to nationality, they encounter major obstacles to obtaining citizenship.

In recent months Croatia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Panama have all made the historic decision to become party to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness.

Yet the the issue remains a low priority in many countries due to political sensitivities surrounding statelessness. The number of parties to the two stateless conventions is an indicator of international commitment: As of August 25, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines who is considered to be a "stateless person" and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 states are parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness. The total number of UN member states is 193.

"After 50 years, these Conventions have attracted only a small number of states,'' says Mr. 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."

While there are some success stories that have positively addressed statelessness, much more needs to be done. UNHCR aims to get the issue on the public agenda, encourage states to accede to the two stateless conventions, reform nationality laws and take additional measures to end statelessness.

Multimedia materials can be downloaded from http://www.unhcr.org/stateless/

For press queries outside of Geneva, contact details of all UNHCR press officers can be found at http://www.unhcr.org/4a09806215.html

Contact details of our Geneva press team are as follows:

UNHCR believes that even one person forced to flee war or persecution, is one too many. To mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the agency has launched the "1" campaign, which aims to humanize an issue often reduced to numbers by telling stories of forcibly displaced individuals and stateless people. For more information, go to http://www.unhcr.org/do1thing.