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Current UNHCR activities on behalf of stateless persons

Executive Committee Meetings

Current UNHCR activities on behalf of stateless persons

21 September 1995

Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, 46th session,
Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, 27th meeting
21 September 1995


1. Statelessness, although not a new phenomenon, has taken on new dimensions, particularly in the aftermath of the Cold War, and its potential as a cause of involuntary displacement and as a source of regional tension has come to be more widely recognized. This is reflected in the increasing interest of the Executive Committee which, in 1994, noted the persistent problems of stateless persons, and called upon UNHCR to "strengthen its efforts in this domain, including promoting accession to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, training for UNHCR staff and government officials, and a systematic gathering of information on the dimension of the problem, and to keep the Executive Committee informed of these activities" (A/AC.96/839, para. 19 (ee)). Following this call, an Information Note on UNHCR and Stateless Persons was presented to the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection in June 1995 (EC/1995/SCP/CRP.2). This Note described UNHCR's mandate and concern for stateless persons, the historical background to the two Conventions on statelessness and the current status of accessions to them, as well as the determination of citizenship in international law.

2. At the 21 June 1995 meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, a number of delegates welcomed UNHCR's efforts, and noted the preventive potential of providing technical advice on citizenship and nationality legislation before problems arise. UNHCR was invited to report back on the progress of initiatives to strengthen its efforts in this domain. This Note is intended as a status report on subsequent developments, and may be supplemented by similar reports on a regular basis.


3. As outlined in the June 1995 Information Note, a lack of national protection places stateless persons in a position analogous to that of refugees. An essential step in strengthening efforts in this regard is securing accession to international instruments which ensure that persons will not arbitrarily be deprived of nationality; will be granted a nationality under certain circumstances in which they might otherwise be stateless; and which ensure adequate protections to those who nonetheless, remain stateless. Although the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons contains a narrow definition of stateless persons as being those who are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law, and accessions are low in relation to both Conventions relating to statelessness1, these instruments are, nonetheless, valuable tools in the protection of stateless persons. The Final Act of the 1954 Convention acknowledges the similarity of de facto statelessness to statelessness de jure in cases where a person has, for valid reasons, renounced the protection of the State of which he is a national, and recommends that such persons receive the same protection.

4. Unlike the Refugee Convention, the statelessness Conventions have not enjoyed the benefit of a supervisory body structured to assure their promotion. In the case of the 1954 Convention, there is every indication that this was due largely to time constraints and to the originally intended association of this Convention with the Refugee Convention. With regard to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which required signatory States to take positive steps to modify domestic legislation pertaining to nationality and naturalization, UNHCR has been entrusted with the functions of a body to which persons claiming the benefit of this Convention may apply for the examination of their claim and for assistance in presenting it to the appropriate authority. This Convention contains in appendix the Final Act of the United Nations Conference on the Elimination or Reduction of Future Statelessness, including a resolution by which the Conference recommended that persons who are stateless de facto should as far as possible be treated as stateless de jure to enable them to acquire an effective nationality. It is incumbent on UNHCR to provide expertise in this regard in order to assist claimants as well as concerned States in determining whether the individual is stateless and in recommending appropriate action.

5. UNHCR is faced with situations of statelessness and inability to establish nationality in connection with state succession and the adoption of nationality legislation by new States, as well as in areas of the world which have had no recent change in legislation and have undergone no transfer of territory, including situations involving former colonial territory, life-long residents of a State who have failed to acquire citizenship, ethnic minorities and those for whom the question of nationality has become an issue only upon their departure from their former State of habitual residence.

6. While the basic human rights of stateless persons are, in principle, to be respected in the country of habitual residence, it is clear that there are a number of categories of persons who may not receive the national protection necessary for a stable life. The prevention and reduction of statelessness and the protection of stateless persons are important for the prevention of potential refugee situations.


7. UNHCR continues to promote accession to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These efforts remain limited: work has just begun on an accession information package, intended to inform Governments and staff alike. The target date for completion of the package is mid-1996. The adoption of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness will normally require some analysis of the concerned State's current nationality legislation. In this connection, UNHCR has funded the compilation of a global compendium of nationality legislation by the Independent Bureau for Humanitarian Issues, of which one part, the relevant nationality and related legislation of States having signed and ratified the 1961 Convention, is now completed. UNHCR anticipates that this will be a useful reference tool for States reviewing or drafting new nationality legislation.

8. UNHCR has undertaken considerable work at the regional level, notably in Central and Eastern Europe and in the former Yugoslavia, including an analysis of new or proposed nationality legislation, and of its implementation, and has entered into constructive dialogue with concerned Governments seeking to avoid or redress cases of statelessness. Close working relationships have been established with regional governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with the issue. The information gathered from these analyses will be instrumental in the further development of the Office's approach to the problem of statelessness. In particular, UNHCR welcomes work undertaken by the Committee of Experts on Nationality of the Council of Europe relating to nationality and the reduction of statelessness. Recent statements, such as the Ottawa Declaration, by the OSCE, as well as work done by the Special Rapporteur on State Succession in the International Law Commission, are also welcome developments towards the establishment of principles under which nationality may be ascribed. UNHCR continues its active dialogue with these bodies in support of their efforts.

9. UNHCR commissioned and has now published a study of historical and legal developments in respect of UNHCR and statelessness. This is being distributed to all UNHCR offices, and will be made available to Governments; it will also be available to the interested public through on-line access to the CDR (UNHCR's Centre for Documentation on Refugees) databases. The Autumn issue of Refugee Studies Quarterly will focus on the subject of statelessness.

10. UNHCR has also funded a study on the causes and magnitude of the global problem of statelessness. Determining the approximate numbers of de jure and de facto stateless persons, as well as the range of potentially stateless persons, is extremely difficult; however, some concept of the magnitude of the problem would be extremely useful. To facilitate this, UNHCR will require the active cooperation of States which have stateless persons within their borders.

11. In addition to providing technical advice to Governments, the Division has, to an increasing degree, been called on to respond to requests and queries from Field Offices in respect of stateless persons. While the Office has developed this capacity already in response to specific requests, it is important that technical advice guidelines be developed to ensure consistent and universal positions which reflect current legal developments. The heightened attention that UNHCR has given to the issue has secured a degree of general awareness among colleagues; however, resources have not yet enabled UNHCR to undertake formal training, externally and internally, on the issue. These functions, as well as maintaining the desirable level of consultation and cooperation with other interested institutions and organizations, and ensuring a consistent strategy for the protection of stateless persons and the reduction of statelessness which builds on the current momentum, will require a strengthening of existing resources. The Division of International Protection is seeking the creation of one post which would be dedicated to commitments in this regard.


12. The Office remains able and willing to devote attention to this core issue, as evidenced by its developing expertise and heightened activity. A more proactive role by UNHCR in respect of the protection of stateless persons and, in particular, the prevention and reduction of future statelessness is an important element of UNHCR's prevention-related activities in this regard. It will continue to seek the support of the Executive Committee for these activities, and for the particular resource requirements which are an essential component of this exercise. UNHCR will continue to keep the Executive Committee informed regularly of activities undertaken on behalf of stateless persons and welcomes the views of States on how UNHCR can best contribute to the elimination of statelessness.

(note: Annexes 1 and 2 not included in this online version. See your nearest UN Depository Library.)

1 Currently, 41 States are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (Annex 1) and 17 States parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (Annex 2)