Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians

Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians, UNHCR/Inter-Parliamentary Union, October 2005



Those of us who are citizens of a country usually take for granted the rights and obligations that citizenship confers on us. Most of us can enroll our children in schools, seek medical attention when we are sick, apply for employment when we need to, and vote to elect our representatives in government. We feel we have a stake in the country in which we live; we feel a profound sense of belonging to something greater than our individual selves. 

But what is life like for persons who have no nationality, who are stateless? Without citizenship, a person cannot register to vote in the country in which he/she is living, cannot apply for a travel document, cannot register to marry. In some instances, individuals who are stateless and are outside their country of origin or country of former residence can be detained for long periods if those countries refuse to grant them re-entry to their territories. Often, even the most basic of rights – the rights to education, medical care, and employment – are denied to individuals who cannot prove a legal connection with a country.

A survey on statelessness conducted by UNHCR in 2003 confirms that no region of the world is free of the problems that lead to statelessness. However, the precise number of stateless persons around the world is unknown. States are often unwilling or unable to provide accurate data; few have mechanisms for registering stateless persons. Indeed, there is no clear requirement for States to report on the numbers of stateless persons living on their territories. UNHCR estimates that millions of people around the world are living without an effective nationality.

Statelessness, which was first recognized as a global problem during the first half of the 20th century, can result from disputes between States about the legal identity of individuals, State succession, protracted marginalization of specific groups within the society, or from stripping individuals or groups of their nationality. Statelessness is normally associated with periods of profound change in international relations. The redrawing of international borders, the manipulation of political systems by national leaders with the aim of achieving questionable political ends, and/or the denial or deprivation of nationality to exclude and marginalize unpopular racial, religious, or ethnic minorities have resulted in statelessness in every region of the world. In the past 20 years, growing numbers of persons have been deprived of their nationality or have not been able to gain an effective citizenship. If these situations are allowed to continue, the deepening sense of disenfranchisement among the affected populations can eventually lead to displacement.


This handbook aims to provide parliamentarians with a broad description of the international principles regulating nationality and statelessness. International law gives States broad discretion with which to define their initial body of citizens and the conditions for acquiring, losing, and retaining citizenship. However, human rights principles developed throughout the 20th century limit this latitude if it results in statelessness and/or if it is applied in a discriminatory manner.

As States work together to address the problems associated with statelessness, there are still millions of individuals around the world who have no effective nationality. This handbook discusses the rights and obligations of stateless persons as protected under international law, particularly by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. (Despite UNHCR’s promotion efforts, as at 31 July 2008 only 63 States had ratified or acceded to the 1954 Convention; in comparison, 147 States had ratified or acceded to the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.) The handbook also highlights the main causes of statelessness and considers how governments can ensure that the application of their nationality legislation does not inadvertently result in statelessness.

UNHCR is the UN agency tasked with helping to reduce the incidence of statelessness and assisting those individuals who are stateless in securing an effective nationality. This handbook describes what UNHCR does to fulfil this role. It also suggests practical steps parliamentarians can take to help to reduce the incidence of statelessness, from reviewing and, if necessary, revising their country’s citizenship laws, to encouraging their governments to accede to international treaties on statelessness, to raising public awareness about the problems associated with statelessness.

This handbook also offers positive examples of how protracted situations of statelessness have been resolved, thanks to the political will of the States concerned, the involvement of civil society, and the assistance provided by the international community. These “good practices” illustrate that when governments, society, and the international community work together, stateless individuals can finally enjoy “the right to have rights”.




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