New Campaign: UNHCR launches global campaign for the stateless millions

Up to 12 million stateless people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo. UNHCR wants the world to end their misery.

In Search of Identity: An ailing 75-year-old Bihari sits alone in his room in a camp in Bangladesh.   © UNHCR/G.Constantine

GENEVA, August 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today launches a global campaign to promote action against statelessness, a scourge for millions of people worldwide.

"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. "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," he added in a message to launch the campaign, which comes ahead of the 50th anniversary on Tuesday of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world today, but defining exact numbers is problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive.

These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo. This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world.

António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

To overcome this, UNHCR is raising awareness about the international legal definition while improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations. UNHCR has found the problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. However pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world and it is a problem that crosses all borders and walks of life.

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.

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

In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav federation and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless. While most cases have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases where the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. And in some countries, women run a risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also do not allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

But, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya and Tunisia have all in recent years amended their laws to grant women the same rights as men to retain their nationality and pass it on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a UNHCR goal this year.

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 Rohingya of Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand and the Bidoon in the Persian Gulf States. In Europe, thousands of Roma continue to be stateless in various countries.

Meanwhile, Croatia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Panama have all decided in recent months to become party to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness. Yet the issue remains a low priority in many countries due to political sensitivities.

The number of states party to the 1961 Convention and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is low. As of today, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention, which defines who is considered to be a stateless person and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 are parties to the 1961 Convention, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness.

"After 50 years, these Conventions have attracted only a small number of states,'' said High Commissioner 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."

  • Prior to the resolution of the statelessness situation, the husband of this 20-year-old Bihari woman left her to marry a local in the hope of obtaining Bangladeshi citizenship. The girl is going blind and has no family to help support her and her baby. She makes paper bags for money.
    Prior to the resolution of the statelessness situation, the husband of this 20-year-old Bihari woman left her to marry a local in the hope of obtaining Bangladeshi citizenship. The girl is going blind and has no family to help support her and her baby. She makes paper bags for money. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • An ailing 75-year-old Urdu-speaking man sits alone in his room in Pat Godam Camp in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He has no family left and does not have the resources to obtain health care.
    An ailing 75-year-old Urdu-speaking man sits alone in his room in Pat Godam Camp in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He has no family left and does not have the resources to obtain health care. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • Overcrowding plagues many Bihari settlements in Bangladesh. Living conditions are cramped and pose safety and health problems. Families of as many as 15 members live in rooms of less than 10 square metres. This family of seven work in their newspaper-covered room in Kurmi Tola Camp in the capital, Dhaka.
    Overcrowding plagues many Bihari settlements in Bangladesh. Living conditions are cramped and pose safety and health problems. Families of as many as 15 members live in rooms of less than 10 square metres. This family of seven work in their newspaper-covered room in Kurmi Tola Camp in the capital, Dhaka.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Camps and settlements where Biharis live have seen little maintenance in 35 years and lack water and sanitation. Some 4,000 people live in Kurmi Tola Camp in Dhaka. The camp is littered with garbage and raw sewage.
    Camps and settlements where Biharis live have seen little maintenance in 35 years and lack water and sanitation. Some 4,000 people live in Kurmi Tola Camp in Dhaka. The camp is littered with garbage and raw sewage.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Blind in one eye after being struck by a foreman while engaged in forced labour, this Rohingya man fled from Myanmar in the mid-1990s. He is one of an estimated 200,000 refugees living in southern Bangladesh. Most stateless people are not refugees, but those who are must be treated in accordance with international law.
    Blind in one eye after being struck by a foreman while engaged in forced labour, this Rohingya man fled from Myanmar in the mid-1990s. He is one of an estimated 200,000 refugees living in southern Bangladesh. Most stateless people are not refugees, but those who are must be treated in accordance with international law.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Thousands of the Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have not been registered and have received little assistance. A woman sits on the side of the road with her grandchild at the old Tal Camp near Teknaf. The government has since relocated the camp residents to a safer and less congested area.
    Thousands of the Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have not been registered and have received little assistance. A woman sits on the side of the road with her grandchild at the old Tal Camp near Teknaf. The government has since relocated the camp residents to a safer and less congested area.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A slum 40 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu is filled with stateless youngsters. Children who possess the right documents are able to attend private schools and some public primary schools. Those who don't are shut out of most public programmes.
    A slum 40 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu is filled with stateless youngsters. Children who possess the right documents are able to attend private schools and some public primary schools. Those who don't are shut out of most public programmes.  © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • An estimated 30,000 children of Filipino and Indonesian descent in Malaysia's Sabah state are stateless or at risk of statelessness. They have little access to social services or to the school system. As a result, many children begin work at an early age in places such as the fish market in the capital, Kota Kinabalu.
    An estimated 30,000 children of Filipino and Indonesian descent in Malaysia's Sabah state are stateless or at risk of statelessness. They have little access to social services or to the school system. As a result, many children begin work at an early age in places such as the fish market in the capital, Kota Kinabalu. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A Dalit man and his grandson rest. The man's family has lived in the Terai in southern Nepal for over five generations, but he still lacks citizenship. While this was extended to millions of people in the Terai in 2007, an unknown number, including Muslims, indigenous people and Dalits, are still excluded from Nepalese citizenship and the rights and opportunities this brings.
    A Dalit man and his grandson rest. The man's family has lived in the Terai in southern Nepal for over five generations, but he still lacks citizenship. While this was extended to millions of people in the Terai in 2007, an unknown number, including Muslims, indigenous people and Dalits, are still excluded from Nepalese citizenship and the rights and opportunities this brings.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Dalits who are not hired to farm the land often end up as labourers earning the equivalent of less than US$1 a day. In this image, two of them shovel gravel and rocks from the dried bed of the Khuti River.
    Dalits who are not hired to farm the land often end up as labourers earning the equivalent of less than US$1 a day. In this image, two of them shovel gravel and rocks from the dried bed of the Khuti River.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A new bride (middle) and her friends take a ceremonial trip from her home to the bridegroom's house, where they will both live. Though they consider themselves to be people of Nepal, many Dalits have little hope that they will ever be recognized as citizens.
    A new bride (middle) and her friends take a ceremonial trip from her home to the bridegroom's house, where they will both live. Though they consider themselves to be people of Nepal, many Dalits have little hope that they will ever be recognized as citizens. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • In January 1999, the Galjeel were given three days to leave their land. They were then forced to trek to an isolated location in a remote forest. The Galjeel finally settled near an abandoned field that was part of a failed government irrigation programme.
    In January 1999, the Galjeel were given three days to leave their land. They were then forced to trek to an isolated location in a remote forest. The Galjeel finally settled near an abandoned field that was part of a failed government irrigation programme. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • International aid agencies began building a new school for the Galjeel children but
construction was halted in 2005. A small group of Galjeel children play in the abandoned facility. Most children in the community do not go to school; those who do must walk several miles and are often harassed by local tribes.
    International aid agencies began building a new school for the Galjeel children but construction was halted in 2005. A small group of Galjeel children play in the abandoned facility. Most children in the community do not go to school; those who do must walk several miles and are often harassed by local tribes. © 
  • A Nubian woman in Kenya holds a photograph of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served with the British Army in World War II and held a British Colonial passport. Nubians conscripted by the British were resettled in modern-day Nairobi with promises of land title. But since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restrictions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship.
    A Nubian woman in Kenya holds a photograph of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served with the British Army in World War II and held a British Colonial passport. Nubians conscripted by the British were resettled in modern-day Nairobi with promises of land title. But since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restrictions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Having lived in Kenya for over 100 years, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been denied recognition. Up until the most recent census conducted in mid-2009, the Nubian community was considered as ‘Other Kenyans' or simply ‘Others'. Three men from the Nubian community sit in a small shop in the Kibera slum.
    Having lived in Kenya for over 100 years, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been denied recognition. Up until the most recent census conducted in mid-2009, the Nubian community was considered as ‘Other Kenyans' or simply ‘Others'. Three men from the Nubian community sit in a small shop in the Kibera slum. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • This stateless ethnic Korean man moved from Uzbekistan to Ukraine in 1993. He has been living with a Ukrainian woman for a decade, but has not been able to register their union without valid documents.
    This stateless ethnic Korean man moved from Uzbekistan to Ukraine in 1993. He has been living with a Ukrainian woman for a decade, but has not been able to register their union without valid documents.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • This 11-year-old girl was born in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, but has lived most of her life in Ukraine. She would like to get Ukrainian citizenship, but has faced problems getting her birth certificate recognized.
    This 11-year-old girl was born in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, but has lived most of her life in Ukraine. She would like to get Ukrainian citizenship, but has faced problems getting her birth certificate recognized.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a village in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. Millions of people from surrounding countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana were welcomed into Côte d'Ivoire in the 1960s and 70s to build the country's economy. As a result, a third of Côte d'Ivoire's population is now considered to be of non-Ivorian descent. In the 1990s, politicians and intellectuals created the xenophobic concept of "Ivoirité" and have since exploited this divide to manipulate issues of nationality, documentation, voting rights and land ownership.
    A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a village in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. Millions of people from surrounding countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana were welcomed into Côte d'Ivoire in the 1960s and 70s to build the country's economy. As a result, a third of Côte d'Ivoire's population is now considered to be of non-Ivorian descent. In the 1990s, politicians and intellectuals created the xenophobic concept of "Ivoirité" and have since exploited this divide to manipulate issues of nationality, documentation, voting rights and land ownership.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A Burkinabé man collects cocoa pods on a plantation in Côte d'Ivoire. Non-Ivorians have been the primary source of labour in the plantations, which brought wealth to the country. But they have been made scapegoats for many of the nation's economic and political problems. Most have lived in Côte d'Ivoire for decades, yet millions cannot prove their nationality. Few have legal claim to the land.
    A Burkinabé man collects cocoa pods on a plantation in Côte d'Ivoire. Non-Ivorians have been the primary source of labour in the plantations, which brought wealth to the country. But they have been made scapegoats for many of the nation's economic and political problems. Most have lived in Côte d'Ivoire for decades, yet millions cannot prove their nationality. Few have legal claim to the land.  © UNHCR/G. Constantine