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UNHCR launches global campaign for the world’s stateless

© UNHCR/G.Constantine

In Search of Identity: An ailing 75-year-old Bihari sits alone in his room in a camp in Bangladesh.

UNHCR has launched a global campaign to promote action against statelessness, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world today, but defining exact numbers is problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive.

To overcome this, UNHCR is raising awareness of the international legal definition of statelessness, whilst also improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations. 

Stateless people are not recognized as citizens of any country, which means that they are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, and health care. 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 come from.

State succession carries a risk that some people will be excluded from citizenship if these issues are not considered early on in the process of separation. The world welcomed the birth of South Sudan in July, but it remains to be seen how new citizenship laws in both the north and south will be implemented.

The dissolution of states, formation of new states, transfer of territories and redrawing of boundaries were major causes of statelessness over the past two decades. In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav federation and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless. While most cases have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases where the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. And in some countries, women run a risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also do not allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

However, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya and Tunisia have all in recent years amended their laws to grant women the same rights as men to retain their nationality and pass it on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a UNHCR objective this year.

Groups excluded from citizenship since states gained independence or were established include the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand and the Bidoon in the Persian Gulf States. In Europe, thousands of Roma continue to be stateless in various countries.

The number of states party to the 1961 Convention and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons is low. As of today, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention, which defines who is considered to be a stateless person and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 are parties to the 1961 Convention, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness.