Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Protection of stateless people and prevention of statelessness: Legal information and documents

Protection of stateless people and prevention of statelessness: Legal information and documents

1 August 2007

What is statelessness?

Nationality is a legal bond between a State and an individual. A de jure stateless person is defined in the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as "a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law". An estimated 15 million people globally are effectively trapped in this legal limbo. This includes persons who are de jure stateless but also persons who are considered de facto stateless because their nationality is not effective or because they face difficulties in establishing their nationality. As explained in the UNHCR/IPU Handbook on Nationality and Statelessness, the phenomenon occurs for a number of reasons including discrimination against specific groups, laws in some countries which prevent women from passing on nationality to their children, failure to guarantee that all citizens from a predecessor State acquire the nationality of successor States in case of State succession and inability of persons to prove their link to a State because births were not registered. Although stateless people may sometimes also be refugees, the two categories are distinct and both groups are people of concern to UNHCR.

The Role of States

Each State determines who its citizens are. However, nationality laws should be consistent with general principles of international law and standards set out in human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

At the regional level, treaties such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also provide important safeguards to prevent statelessness. In Europe, the European Convention on Nationality sets out key standards governing nationality as does the recently adopted Council of Europe Convention on the Avoidance of Statelessness in relation to State Succession.

Given the seriousness of the problem, two specific United Nations conventions were adopted to ameliorate the situation of stateless persons and to reduce occurrence of statelessness:

As of August 2007, there were 62 States Parties to the 1954 Convention and 33 States Parties to the 1961 Convention. The number of accessions to these conventions remains low but has risen rapidly in recent years.

The Role of UNHCR

Since 1994, The UN General Assembly has adopted a series of resolutions which establish a general mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness and to protect the rights of stateless persons (A/RES/49/169, A/RES/50/152, A/RES/61/137). These resolutions significantly expanded the role assigned to UNHCR by the General Assembly in 1974 (and confirmed in 1976) as the UN body with specific functions under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (Resolutions 3274 (XXIX) and 31/36 of 30 November 1976).

UNHCR's Executive Committee has provided detailed guidance on how this mandate is to be implemented in practice, most recently in 2006 in a Conclusion on the Identification, Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness and the Protection of Stateless Persons. The Conclusion requires UNHCR to work with States, other UN agencies and civil society organizations to address the problem of statelessness. The principal activities foreseen include:

  • identifying stateless populations and populations with undetermined nationality and gathering and disseminating statistical information on these populations;
  • providing technical and advisory services to interested States for the preparation and implementation of nationality legislation;
  • training government officials and cooperating with other interested organizations to prevent and reduce statelessness;
  • supporting efforts of States to bring to an end protracted situations of statelessness, for example through citizenship campaigns;
  • working with civil society to provide legal advice so that people can exercise their right to a nationality;
  • providing assistance to persons claiming the benefit of the 1961 Convention; and
  • actively promoting accessions by States to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions.

Division of International Protection Services
Statelessness Unit
Updated, August 2007