The Global Phenomenon of Statelessness: Causes and Solutions

We are pleased to welcome this guest post by Carl Grainger, Protection Associate, UNHCR Ireland

UNHCR estimates that there are approximately 12 million stateless people worldwide. Statelessness can be defined as occurring when an individual is not considered a national by any state.

This phenomenon can arise in a number of circumstances. For instance, the turbulent dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Federation caused internal and external migration that left hundreds of thousands stateless throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. To this day, tens of thousands of people in the region remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Complex and varied citizenship laws can also give rise to statelessness. In some countries, citizenship is lost automatically after prolonged residence in another country. In a significant number of countries only men can pass citizenship on to their children; if a woman from one of these countries marries a foreigner her children can end up stateless. Failure or inability to register children at birth, a pervasive problem in many developing countries, leaves many children without proof of where they were born, who their parents were or where their parents were from. Not having a birth certificate does not automatically indicate a lack of citizenship, but in many countries, and in today’s increasingly mobile world of migrants, not having proof of birth, origins or legal identity increases the risk of statelessness.

An underlying theme of most situations of statelessness is ethnic and racial discrimination that leads to exclusion, where political will is often lacking to resolve the problem. Via decree, Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein stripped the Faili Kurds of their Iraqi citizenship in one day (in 1980). In Europe, while most Roma and other minority groups do have citizenship of the countries where they live, thousands continue to be stateless. Since states gained independence or boundaries were established, groups such as the Muslim residents (Rohingya) of Rakhine State in Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand, the Bidoon in the Gulf States and various nomadic groups have been excluded from citizenship in the only countries they have lived in for generations.

Often, such groups have become so marginalised that even if legislation changes to grant access to citizenship, they encounter huge obstacles and bureaucratic red tape. It will frequently be the case that the cost of actually obtaining citizenship and documentation is almost insurmountable.

The consequences of being stateless are considerable. Nationality is a basic human right as it provides the legal connection between an individual and a state. Stateless persons, without nationality, are incapable of exercising their most fundamental rights. At a national level, stateless persons have no definite legal status, no clearly defined rights and are at the mercy of the administrative authorities. Stateless persons are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, health care and pensions. 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 are from.

The UN General Assembly has given UNHCR the formal mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness around the world, as well as to protect the rights of stateless persons. UNHCR works with governments, other UN agencies and civil society to address the problem of statelessness.

The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is the primary international instrument adopted to date to regulate and improve the legal status of stateless persons.  The Convention sets the legal framework for the standard treatment of stateless persons. It contains provisions regarding stateless persons’ rights and obligations pertaining to their legal status in the country of residence. The Convention further addresses a variety of matters that have an important effect on day-to-day life such as gainful employment, public education, public relief, labour legislation and social security. In ensuring that such basic rights and needs are met, the Convention provides the individual with stability and improves the quality of life of the stateless person. This, in turn, can prove to be of advantage to the state in which stateless persons live, since such persons can then contribute to society, enhancing national solidarity and stability. Moreover, the potential for migration or displacement of large population groups decreases, thus contributing to regional stability and peaceful co-existence.

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness is the primary international legal instrument adopted to date to deal with the means of avoiding statelessness. The Convention provides for acquisition of nationality for those who would otherwise be stateless and who have an appropriate link with the state through factors of birth or descent. The issues of retention of nationality once acquired and transfer of territory are also addressed

Ireland is a party to both the 1954 and 1961 Conventions. Irish citizenship legislation contains a number of safeguards aimed at preventing statelessness. For instance, under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 (as amended) a person born on the island of Ireland is deemed to be an Irish citizen from birth if he or she is not entitled to citizenship of any other country. Moreover, every deserted newborn child first found in the State shall, unless the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been born in the island of Ireland to parents at least one of whom is an Irish citizen, thus entitling them to Irish nationality.

In Ireland, stateless persons who are deemed to be at risk of persecution or ill-treatment may avail of refugee status or subsidiary protection. Other stateless persons may be granted leave to remain in the State under Ministerial discretion. However, as in many other countries, there is at present no discrete procedure for the determination of statelessness in Ireland. UNHCR has called on states parties to the 1954 Convention to establish a procedure to ensure that stateless persons on their territory are recognised and granted a form of status from which the rights and duties of the Convention will flow.

UNHCR Ireland is pleased to announce the opening of an exhibition entitled “Nowhere People: The World’s Stateless” by award winning photographer Greg Constantine. The exhibition will run from 5th-19th July at The Atrium, Department of Justice and Equality, 51 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. The exhibition is free of charge and open to the public Monday-Friday, 9am-6.30pm. Further information is available at

The Global Phenomenon of Statelessness: Causes and Solutions

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