Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

African Union and UNHCR push for the right to nationality in Africa

Press releases

African Union and UNHCR push for the right to nationality in Africa

29 January 2015

'A protocol on the right to nationality will strengthen democracy, regional integration, and reduce conflict in Africa', a new report states

Addis Ababa, 29 January 2015- According to a new report launched by President Alassane Ouattara from Côte d'Ivoire and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, gaps in the citizenship laws of many African States mean that they do not guarantee the right to a nationality for everyone. Gaps in nationality laws and discriminatory legal provisions in some countries are often further compounded by a range of issues, such as changing of State borders and the practice of pastoralism and other population migrations on the continent. As a result, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Africans whose legal existence is jeopardised by the fact that they are not recognised as nationals of at least one country or are simply stateless.

"Stateless individuals and every other person in similar situation expect from our leaders nothing but the political will to translate their concerns into concrete reality," said Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the AUC.

The report, published by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights notes that reforms of nationality laws and documentation procedures are necessary to ensure that everyone enjoys the right to a nationality in Africa. Lack of nationality often means that the people concerned do not have the right to vote, are deprived of access to public services, including education and health care. They may not be able to leave and enter their country since they do not have travel documents.

"It is disturbing to note that in the 21st century Africa, hundreds of thousands of people are denied even the right to exist, not because they are not Africans, but because some people in power say they do not deserve to be; and the fact that their primary right to exist, is discriminately applied, means that the willful act of impoverishment is systematically being perpetrated, and we need to put a stop to this," said Mrs. Maya Fadel-Sahli, Commissioner for ACHPR and Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.

The denial of citizenship rights has been a major cause of conflict and remains an obstacle to Africa becoming a peaceful and prosperous continent. It is often a direct consequence of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender. The laws of at least half a dozen countries include provisions that restrict nationality from birth to members of certain ethnic groups. In at least 10 African countries, women cannot pass their nationality on to their children on an equal basis as men, which can perpetuate the problem into the next generation.

"For many people who are unable to prove their nationality, it is as if they were invisible, as if they do not exist", High Commissioner Guterres said. "But denying people a nationality is a missed opportunity for countries on the way to development and prosperity, as it excludes the energy and talents of hundreds of thousands of people. By tackling these issues, Africa can help lead the way in efforts to end statelessness".

The study concludes that despite the existence of a range of human rights provisions relating to non-discrimination and the right to nationality in Africa, there is often a legal void at the national level that stops people from exercising their right to a nationality. It urges AU member States to support the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to draft a protocol on the Right to a

Nationality in Africa, which will provide the framework for countries' nationality laws to ensure that each and every person can enjoy the right to a nationality.


The two books, released in 2009 on African Human Rights Day, documented citizenship discrimination in Africa in numerous case studies to show the devastating consequences of being deprived of the right to a nationality, and thus excluded from full participation in national political and economic life. The studies were titled: "Citizenship Law in Africa: A comparative study", and "Struggles for Citizenship in Africa" published by the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy project (AfriMAP). The two reports highlighted the challenges to acquisition of citizenship in Africa. They found that:

  • Despite the provisions of international treaties against statelessness, only a handful of African countries provide in law for children born on their soil who do not have another nationality to have the right to a nationality from birth.
  • Several countries still grant greater rights to men than women to pass citizenship to their children or spouses.
  • Though almost all countries provide for the possibility of foreigners to naturalise, citizenship by naturalization is in practice often almost impossible to obtain.
  • Many countries allow naturalized citizenship to be withdrawn on highly arbitrary grounds, and half of Africa's States even allow revocation of a person's birth nationality.

The challenges have led to sustained advocacy for the need to draft, propose and adopt a protocol on right to a nationality in Africa, which has the potential to provide the framework for recognizing hundreds of thousands of people in Africa, who currently do not exist in legal terms and are invisible in their own countries, as nationals, and to prevent new cases of statelessness.

UNHCR's 10 year #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness was launched in November 2014. Thousands of people have signed UNHCR's open letter asking global leaders to end statelessness. The names include former Nobel Laureates and dozens of influential human rights defenders, opinion leaders as well as political leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

The #IBelong campaign has already witnessed strong political progress. Latin American and Caribbean States recently adopted a declaration to eradicate statelessness by 2024, becoming the first region to respond to UNHCR's global call. In Africa, Niger has recently acceded to the 1954 Statelessness Convention

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and more than 20 celebrities and world opinion-leaders signed an Open Letter, saying that 60 years after the United Nations first agreed to protect stateless people, "now it's time to end statelessness itself."

At least ten million people worldwide are currently stateless and a baby is born stateless every ten minutes. Not allowed a nationality, they are often denied the rights and services that countries normally offer their citizens.

About us:

ACHPR: The African Charter established the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The Commission was inaugurated on 2 November 1987 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Commission's Secretariat has subsequently been located in Banjul, The Gambia.

In addition to performing any other tasks which may be entrusted to it by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the Commission is officially charged with three major functions:

  • the protection of human and peoples' rights
  • the promotion of human and peoples' rights
  • the interpretation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights

UNHCR: The High Commissioner for Refugees is mandated by the United Nations to lead and co-ordinate international action for the protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems worldwide. UNHCR's primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily when conditions allow, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. The UN General Assembly has also mandated UNHCR to identify and protect stateless people and to prevent and reduce statelessness. For more information please see:

For more information please contact:

  • Jeggan Grey-Johnson, [email protected], Tel: +27836200578- Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Kisut Gebreegziabher, UNHCR Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, [email protected], Tel. +251116612822, Mobile +251911208901
  • For Arabic and French Speaking Media: Marouane TASSI, UNHCR Representation to the African Union, [email protected], Mobile: +251911255545