Statelessness: An unforgiving situation for millions of people

Statelessness is a legal issue affecting millions of people around the world, but what does it truly mean to be stateless and what can we do to help those who are?

Statelessness is a legal issue affecting millions of people around the world, but what does it truly mean to be stateless and what can we do to help those who are?


What does it mean to be stateless?


After World War II reshaped the world, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) on December 10, 1948, setting forth fundamental rights for all people and all nations.  Article 15of the UDHR states that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”  However, according to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, as of January 2017, nearly 10 million peopleare still stateless.


In 1951, the United Nations definedthe term “stateless person” as a person “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) was created to help refugees in the wake of World War II, including many individuals who were left stateless.  The UNHCR offersseveral explanations as to how individuals end up stateless, including gaps in nationality laws, changes in borders, the creation of new states, and the birth of children in foreign countries.


The UNHCR explainsthat issues caused by gaps in nationality laws have played a significant role in causing statelessness, providing some general examples.  Consider a child born in a state that bases nationality solely off of descent from a national of that country.  If the nationality of the child’s parents is unknown, the child could be left stateless, facing a difficult challenge in changing his or her status and lacking the fundamental right to a nationality.  Alternatively, imagine a child born in a foreign state that only provides nationality through a parental or familial relationship.  If the parent and child’s home state only provides nationality based on the place of birth, then that child is left stateless.  Although the UNHCR acknowledgesthe rarity of these situations, these examples illustrate the importance and necessity of having well-drafted nationality laws.


Moreover, the creation of new states, the alteration of national borders, and changes in law can lead to statelessness.  The UNHCR points outthat minority groups often lose their nationality in these situations.  As there are so many ways that individuals may be  left stateless, organizations fighting statelessness have a difficult battle in ending this injustice.


Deprived of citizenship, stateless persons lack basic, fundamental legal protections.


Without a nationality, stateless persons are left extremely vulnerable, lacking essential government protections.  Stateless persons do not enjoy citizenship in any country and are left to deal with the resulting and often dire consequences.  On the United States Department of State  website, the agency lists some of the countless problems associated with statelessness.


Deprived of citizenship, stateless persons lack basic, fundamental legal protections.  Foremost, Stateless persons have no right to voteor participate in government, as they are not considered citizens of any country. Without this right, stateless persons have little chance of advancing their interests through government representatives.  Moreover, statelessness creates substantial complicationsin almost every aspect of life.  Stateless persons are often unableto purchase, sell, or inherit property; protect their financial future by opening a bank account, taking out a loan, or starting a business; or obtain identification, like drivers licenses, passports, marriage certificates, or death certificates.


The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion(ISI) explains that without identification, stateless persons have no proof that they exist, making it extremely difficult to interact with government and non-government actors.  Even in their home country, stateless persons without identification face severetravel restrictions.  These restrictions are amplifiedwhen considering international travel.  According to ISI, stateless persons are frequently subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, even in their home country. In some cases,detention can proceed indefinitely, especially in situations where the state wants to expel the stateless person, but no other country would allow them.  In these situations, stateless persons are left with zero protection, having no rights to assert, nor any government to assist on their behalf.


Not only do stateless persons face severe travel restrictions, they are also subject to other regulations and practices.  According to the ISI, many of these regulations and practices are harsh and inhumane, amounting to persecution in some instances.  While these regulations and practices vary from nation to nation, ISI provides several examplesof these unfair regulations and practices, including anything from forced labor and extortion, to restrictions on marriage and reproductive rights.  These examples demonstrate just how harsh the realities are of many stateless persons around the world.

Both the U.S. Department of Stateand theISIexplain that stateless persons lack more than just legal protections.  These individuals have minimal, if any, access to key components of civil society, such asmeaningful employment, health care, or education. Not only do stateless people face these harsh penalties, but they are also exceedingly susceptible to various forms of abusefrom non-government actors, as they have no government to protect them or intervene on their behalf. These abuses includeforcible displacement, sexual and physical violence, human trafficking, exploitation, and much more.


Numerous international agreements focus on or point out the issues that stateless people face.


Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) in 1948, there have been several international agreements dealing with statelessness.  As the first international proclamation if its kind, the UDHRwas a breakthrough in the recognition of basic human rights.  Drafted by representatives of various nationalities, the UDHR announced“the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” so that “every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” Article 15 of the UDHRaddressed the rights necessary to avoid statelessness, including the rights to have a nationality, to not be “arbitrarily deprived” of nationality, and the right to change nationality.


Following the UDHR, the 1954 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (CRSSP)established a framework for the international protection of stateless persons and the minimum standard for their treatment.  The CRSSP requiredstateless persons to be treated the same as nationals “with respect to the freedom of religion and the freedom to educate their children.”  For several other rights, the CRSSP mandatedthat stateless persons should “at a minimum, receive the same treatment as other non-nationals.”  It further protected stateless persons by grantingthem freedom of movement and demanding“States provide them with identity papers and travel documents” if lawfully present.  Although eighty-three nations joined the CRSSP, statelessness still remains a serious problem today.


Adopted in 1961, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness(CRS) complimented the CRSSP.  In an effort to prevent statelessness, the CRS set forth rulesfor the “conferral and non-withdrawal of citizenship.”  A key component of the CRS, Article I requiredparticipating states to grant nationality or citizenship to children born in their territory, and to children born to nationals outside of their territory.  Additionally, the CRS forbade  participating states from revoking citizenship of their nationals when doing so would result in statelessness.  As of November 2014, the CRS includedsixty-one state parties.


Another international agreement addressing statelessness, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966.  Article 24 of the ICCRPfocused on the rights of children to acquire a nationality, stating thatno child should be discriminated against as to “race, colo[u]r, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth,” and “the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.”  The ICCRPwas one of the first of many international agreements to address the rights of children to acquire a nationality.


Continuing the focus on stateless children, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child(CRC), addressed the same issue.  Article 7 of the CRCestablished the rights of children to acquire and keep a nationality and the continued obligation of participating states to implement these rights, “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”  Article 8further seeks to protect “the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality,” from “unlawful interference.”  Article 8 alsorequires participating states to provide “appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity” in situations where a child is “illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity.”  The CRC is the most ratified human rights convention in history, amassing 196 state parties as of October 2015.


In 1997, the Council of Europe and twenty-seven countries signed the European Convention on Nationality(ECN), with multiple objectives.  These objectives were similar to those of other agreements, includingthe desire to reduce and prevent statelessness, promote unity between participating states, avoid discrimination in matters relating to nationality, and establish rules relating to nationality.  The text of the ECNembodies a combination of the rules, principles, and modern thoughts on nationality.  As of November 2018, twenty-nine countries have signed the ECN; however, only twenty-one of those countries have ratified it.


While there have been numerous international agreements that focus on or point out the issues that stateless people face, they have been unsuccessful to completely eradicate the problem.


The international agreements and the nations who signed them are not the only ones advocating to end statelessness.

The sheer number of nations participating in various international agreements demonstrates the collective effort by different nations around the world to end statelessness.  However, the international agreements and the nations who signed them are not the only ones advocating to end statelessness.  There are numerous organizations that assist in this effort, including several United Nations agencies and many non-governmental institutions.  These non-governmental institutions include research organizations, advocacy groups, and many individuals.


There are several United Nations agencies that zealously advocate for stateless persons.  For over sixty-eight years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) has worked extremely hard to assist and protect stateless persons around the world.  Created to help refugees in the wake of World War II, the UNHCRhas helped over fifty million refugees worldwide, earningtwo Nobel Peace Prizes for its work.  The UNHCRhas over 11 thousand staff members, helping refugees in 128 different countries.  The UNHCRhas made considerable efforts to combat statelessness, working with other United Nations agencies, states, and civil societies to compile reportson statelessness, launch awareness campaigns, and collect signaturesand from individuals around the world.


Working alongside UNHCR, many other United Nations agencies advocate for stateless people.  These includethe UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, the UN Population Fund, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, and the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS.


There are also numerous organizations outside of the United Nations that advocate for stateless people and ending statelessness.  A prominent example is the International Observatory on Statelessness(IOS). Created in 2007, the IOScollates data, promotes research, and “acts as a clearinghouse for those working on statelessness.”

Another example, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion(ISI), is an independent, non-profit organization founded in the Netherlands in 2014.  The ISIadvocates against statelessness through research, information sharing, and awareness promotion.


Similarly, the International Detention Coalition(IDC) is made up of over 400 civil societies and individuals in almost 90 countries.  The IDCadvocates, researches, and provides services for refugee asylum seekers and migrants affected by immigration detention.  The IDC’s helpful research on the subject has been published every year since 2009 in its annual reports.  There are many more organizations advocating in similar ways, including the European Network on Statelessness, the Women’s Nationality Initiative, and Refugee Legal Aid’s Rights in Exile Program.


The United States is an active participant in the global fight against statelessness.  Not only is the United States Department of State the single largest donorto UNHCR, but the Department also advocates in conjunction with the UNHCR.  Specifically, the Women’s Nationality Initiative  (WNI) launched by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, helps promote the problems surrounding gender discrimination, nationality laws, and the other issues that leave women stateless around the world.  The United States also co-sponsored a resolution focusing on the same issue, titled “The Right to Nationality: Women and Children” at the 20th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.  In sum, the United States seems to be doing its part to help stateless people.


Hope for the Future


Although there are substantial efforts being made to end statelessness, we can always do more.  As there are still millions of stateless persons around the world, we must do more.  There is hope for these stateless persons if we continue the global, collaborative effort to advocate on their behalf to end statelessness.



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About Bryant Pernell (6 Articles)
Bryant Pernell is a third-year law student at Campbell Law School and currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Kenbridge, Virginia, Bryant attended the College of Charleston where he received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Before law school, he worked as a real estate agent for Southern Virginia Realty, Inc., and interned at Harris, Mathews, & Crowder, P.C. While at Campbell Law, Bryant has served as Event Coordinator for Delta Theta Phi, a service-based fraternity, and is pursuing an LL.M in Legal Practice through Nottingham Trent University. He is interested in comparative legal studies, constitutional legal issues, and estate planning.
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