For over half a century, UNHCR has helped millions of people to restart their lives. They include refugees, returnees, stateless people, the internally displaced and asylum-seekers. Our protection, shelter, health, and education has been crucial, healing broken pasts and building brighter futures.
There are an estimated 70.8 million persons forcibly displaced worldwide. These include:
- 25.9 million refugees, persons in refugee-like situations, and returnees
- 41.3 million internally displaced persons and returnees
- 3.5 million asylum-seekers
Moreover, UNHCR has data on 3.9 million stateless people, but there are thought to be millions more.
Imagine being forced to flee your country in order to escape to safety. If you were lucky you had time to pack a bag. If not, you simply dropped everything and ran.
Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. At UNHCR, we have been assisting them for over half a century.
Life as a refugee can be difficult to imagine. But, for over 25.9 million people around the world, it is a terrifying reality.
The protection of refugees has many aspects. These include safety from being returned to danger, access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and measures to ensure that their basic human rights are respected while they secure a longer-term solution. UNHCR works around the clock to accomplish all of this, but we can’t do it alone.
Your support helps us to continue providing life-saving protection to millions.
For many of the millions forced to flee, returning home concludes an often traumatic time in exile. It may happen months, years or even decades after they left – and sometimes not at all.
Over the years, UNHCR has managed numerous voluntary repatriation programmes that have brought millions of displaced people home. In Afghanistan alone, we have helped some five million refugees return since 2002.
We also assist with small-scale and individual repatriations, and, where necessary, monitor the reintegration of returnees to ensure that their repatriation was a sustainable solution.
Today, at least 10 million people around the world are denied a nationality. As a result, they often aren’t allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married.
Stateless people may have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. Without these things, they can face a lifetime of obstacles and disappointment.
Governments establish who their nationals are. This makes them responsible for legal and policy reforms that are necessary to effectively address statelessness. But UNHCR, other agencies, regional organizations, civil society and stateless people all have roles to play in supporting their efforts.
To make a difference, we must work together. Each of the four areas of our work on statelessness – identification, prevention, reduction and protection – overlap with the expertise of other international organizations and NGOs, and we rely on the local knowledge and expertise of civil society groups, national human rights institutions, academics and legal associations. Their contribution to our work allows us to prepare and recommend the most effective solutions.
Collaboration with other UN agencies is also important. For example, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has long worked on improving birth registration and civil registries, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) can help governments design and implement national censuses, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) supports monitoring of the human rights of stateless people.
How does nationality work?
People usually acquire a nationality automatically at birth, either through their parents or the country in which they were born. Sometimes, however, a person must apply to become a national of a country.
What is statelessness?
The international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. In simple terms, this means that a stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless.
Statelessness can occur for several reasons, including discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups, or on the basis of gender; the emergence of new States and transfers of territory between existing States; and gaps in nationality laws. Whatever the cause, statelessness has serious consequences for people in almost every country and in all regions of the world.
What are the causes of statelessness?
- Gaps in nationality laws are a major cause of statelessness. Every country has laws which establish under what circumstances someone acquires nationality or can have it withdrawn. If these laws are not carefully written and correctly applied, some people can be excluded and left stateless. An example is children who are of unknown parentage in a country where nationality is acquired based on descent from a national. Fortunately, most nationality laws recognize them as nationals of the state in which they are found.
- Another factor that can make matters complicated is when people move from the countries where they were born. A child born in a foreign country can risk becoming stateless if that country does not permit nationality based on birth alone and if the country of origin does not allow a parent to pass on nationality through family ties. Additionally, the rules setting out who can and who cannot pass on their nationality are sometimes discriminatory. The laws in 27 countries do not let women pass on their nationality, while some countries limit citizenship to people of certain races and ethnicities.
- Another important reason is the emergence of new states and changes in borders. In many cases, specific groups can be left without a nationality as a result and, even where new countries allow nationality for all, ethnic, racial and religious minorities frequently have trouble proving their link to the country. In countries where nationality is only acquired by descent from a national, statelessness will be passed on to the next generation.
- Finally, statelessness can also be caused by loss or deprivation of nationality. In some countries, citizens can lose their nationality simply from having lived outside their country for a long period of time. States can also deprive citizens of their nationality through changes in law that leave whole populations stateless, using discriminatory criteria like ethnicity or race.
- Statelessness Documents on Refworld
- Self-Study Module on Statelessness
- To register for and access the E-Learning Programme on Statelessness
Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home.
Although UNHCR’s original mandate does not specifically cover IDPs, we have been using our expertise to protect and assist them for years.
An asylum-seeker is someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed. Every year, around one million people seek asylum.
National asylum systems are in place to determine who qualifies for international protection. However, during mass movements of refugees, usually as a result of conflict or violence, it is not always possible or necessary to conduct individual interviews with every asylum seeker who crosses a border. These groups are often called ‘prima facie’ refugees.
At UNHCR, we believe that everyone has a right to seek asylum from persecution, and we do our best to protect those who need it.
UNHCR Population Statistics – Persons of Concern