Nationality rights for all: A progress report and global survey on statelessness

Southwich, K. & Lynch, M. (2009). Nationality Rights for All: A Progress Report and Global Survey on Statelessness. Refugee International.


The world community is no longer silent about statelessness. In recent years, countries such as Bangladesh, Estonia, Mauritania, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have made significant strides to protect the rights of stateless persons. The response of the United Nations (UN) has improved. Non-governmental agencies, legal experts, affected individuals, and others are joining forces to gather more accurate information and reduce the incidence of this often overlooked global phenomenon. Media attention has increased. Yet some 12 million people around the world are still stateless, and progress toward ending the problem is limited and slow. The campaign for nationality rights is far from over.

Nationality is a fundamental human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace, and security. But statelessness, or the lack of effective nationality, affects millions of men, women, and children worldwide. Being stateless means having no legal protection or right to participate in political processes, inadequate access to health care and education, poor employment prospects and poverty, little opportunity to own property, travel restrictions, social exclusion, vulnerability to trafficking, harassment, and violence. Statelessness has a disproportionate impact on women and children.

Stateless people are found in all regions of the world. Among the most vulnerable groups are Rohingya in Burma and throughout Asia, Bidun in the Middle East, Roma in Europe, children of Haitian migrants in the Caribbean, individuals from the former Soviet bloc, denationalized Kurds, some Palestinians, and certain groups in Thailand. Their situations of legal limbo result from many factors such as political change, expulsion of people from a territory, discrimination, nationality based solely on descent, and laws regulating marriage and birth registration.

Because states have the sovereign right to determine the procedures and conditions for acquisition and loss of citizenship, statelessness and disputed nationality must ultimately be resolved by governments. But state determinations on citizenship must conform to general principles of international law. Numerous international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirm nationality rights. Two UN conventions on statelessness have long existed, but they are not widely ratified. To date, 63 countries have become party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and 35 countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

The 1954 Convention identifies a stateless person as someone who does not have the legal bond of nationality with any state. Persons who have legitimate claims to citizenship, but who cannot prove their citizenship, or whose governments refuse to give effect to their nationality, are also considered to be stateless. The number of stateless persons in 2009 roughly equals the number of refugees worldwide. But unlike refugees, stateless individuals – particularly those who cannot be classified as refugees – often do not benefit from the protection and assistance of governments, aid agencies, or the UN, despite the institution’s mandate to assist stateless persons.

Since 2004, Refugees International (RI) has visited over a dozen countries to assess the situation of people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. In 2005, RI published its first global survey of statelessness, Lives on Hold: The Human Cost of Statelessness, in order to bring renewed attention to the problem, asserting that “[t]he gap between rights and reality must be closed.”

This report, Nationality Rights for All: A Progress Report and Global Survey on Statelessness, provides an updated global survey of statelessness in over 80 countries and assesses progress since 2005 in protecting the human rights of stateless persons and in preventing and reducing statelessness. Important developments are reflected in changes in international law, and in steps taken by governments, international organizations, and non-governmental groups. And while the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is thinking more strategically than before about living up to its obligations, the agency’s statelessness unit remains severely understaffed and underfunded relative to the organization’s other functions. Coordination among UN agencies regarding statelessness must improve.

Three cases of progress – Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Kenya – illustrate how improvements can occur, but also what challenges remain for complete and lasting solutions to statelessness. These three cases demonstrate the critical roles of political will (or the lack of it), international and national legal frameworks, liaison efforts by the UN and other agencies, as well as the initiative of stateless people themselves.

– In Bangladesh, following legal precedent, most of the Urdu-speaking minority (also called “Bihari” or “stranded Pakistanis”) were recognized as citizens in a May 2008 High Court judgment. Since 1971, at least 200,000 and as many as 500,000 people from this minority have lived in squalid urban slums, with limited access to health care, education, and livelihoods. For thirty-seven years, neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan recognized them as citizens. As a first step towards integration, the High Court ordered that willing adults be registered to vote and issued national identification cards.

– In Ethiopia, at least 120,000 and as many as 500,000 persons of Eritrean origin were stripped of citizenship during the 1998-2000 border conflict with Eritrea. Around 75,000 were deported to Eritrea, splitting families apart. Individuals who were not deported have apparently been able to reacquire citizenship under Ethiopia’s 2003 Nationality Proclamation, but precise numbers are difficult to obtain.

– In Kenya, around 100,000 Nubians have had less difficulty obtaining national identity cards, particularly since they filed lawsuits in 2003 and 2004 against the government in the Kenya High Court and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights based in the Gambia.

Building on the momentum of these developments, this report aims to expand understanding of the problem of statelessness, increase recognition of the right to nationality, and promote solutions to end statelessness. The three cases show that real solutions for statelessness extend beyond finding neat legal status determinations. They involve long-term processes of integration and management of diversity. Governments need to ensure that public institutions – schools, hospitals, municipalities, courts – fully implement the law. Government leadership is important for setting a conciliatory tone.

Because statelessness is often a hidden problem, a sensitive topic, and sometimes stuck in diplomatic deadlock, it fades to the background. But loss of nationality and protracted neglect soon amount to massive denial of fundamental human rights. Local initiatives to resolve statelessness must be encouraged, but UNHCR’s engagement is essential to enhance the force and legitimacy of international legal standards on nationality rights and their implementation in practice.

Toward these goals, Refugees International recommends that all states respect and ensure the right of every person to have a nationality, work to facilitate acquisition of nationality, and uphold international standards to protect stateless people and to prevent and reduce statelessness. Refugees International also urges UNHCR to take concrete steps to fully live up to its mandate to help stateless persons. Nongovernmental groups also have an important role to play. Bold efforts to end statelessness are long overdue.

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