Up to 15 million people worldwide have no nationality. They are not recognised as citizens by any state.
Those individuals are known as stateless persons.
Read more about statelessness and its impact on individuals and societies.
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What Is Statelessness?
What Causes Statelessness?
What Is Statelessness?
Statelessness describes the condition of not being recognised as a citizen or national by any state. But in a world structured in nation-states, not having a nationality often means not having access to rights.
If nationality is a prerequisite for accessing citizenship rights, what are the implications and consequences of not having a nationality?
Statelessness – and its related effects, such as the lack of an identity card and/or passport – impacts lives of those affected in many ways. Travelling without a passport is nearly impossible; accessing education, health care and a secure residence permit can be very difficult, depending on the country of residence. Additionally, in seemingly trivial things like opening a bank account, verifying one’s identity online or picking up a parcel, stateless persons are reminded of the fact that the system was not built to include them.
Statelessness can have complex effects on individuals’ lives, their families and entire communities – effects that also vary according to how states address matters of statelessness: how they prevent and identify cases of statelessness, and the rights and protection provided to stateless people.
What Causes Statelessness?
The reasons for statelessness are diverse, intersectional and complex. Thus, a holistic overview is hard to create. The following summary clusters the most common reasons that can lead to statelessness, but it is by no means conclusive.
For anyone interested in learning more about the cause of statelessness, especially in relation to specific stateless populations around the world, we recommend the very comprehensive Atlas of the Stateless published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
Lack of Birth Registration and Birth Certificates
Without proper birth registration and documentation, people cannot prove their nationality, which is making them vulnerable to statelessness. This can be a problem in countries with weak registration systems or in marginalised communities. For example, in certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa or among displaced people, children may become stateless because their birth was not registered.
Birth to Stateless Parents
Article 7 (1) UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989 states:
The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right to a name from birth, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
Still to this date, countries worldwide have not implemented sufficient safeguards to protect children from statelessness and guarantee their right to acquire a nationality on a global level.
In cases where one or both parents are stateless or their citizenship is undetermined, their child may inherit their status and be born stateless. And this happens not only in a migratory context: there are huge in situ stateless populations – stateless persons with a strong connection to their country of residence, e.g. due to birth in that country or many years of residence – around the world where statelessness is passed on from generation to generation.
Discrimination against Minority Groups
Expatriation is a tool of rulers that has existed since the concept of nation-states came into existence. There are many examples of how power has been abused over the past centuries, solely to increase power by depriving certain groups of their nationality – and with it their voice and their rights. These are a few recent examples:
Rohingya in Myanmar: The Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar, have faced systemic discrimination and persecution by the government. In 1982, the Burmese Citizenship Law rendered them stateless by denying them citizenship, effectively excluding them from the political and social life of the country.
Roma and Sinti: Roma and Sinti communities in various countries have experienced discrimination and marginalisation. In some cases, for example during the breakup of Yugoslavia, they were denied citizenship rights of new or existing states and became stateless.
Gender Discrimination in Nationality Law
In some countries, citizenship laws discriminate against women by prohibiting them from passing on their citizenship to their children in the same way as men. If a child’s father is unknown, absent or stateless, it can lead to the child being born into statlessness. In Saudi Arabia, for example, citizenship is passed only through paternal descent, leaving children of Saudi mothers and foreign fathers at risk of statelessness.
War and Dissolution of States
Historically, war and the consequent dissolution of nation-states have always caused gaps – gaps in political stability, territorial integrity and social cohesion. Such times of instability often lead to things being overlooked, intentionally or unintentionally.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, for instance, left many people in the Baltic and Eastern European states without recognised citizenship, especially members of ethnic minorities living in various newly formed states.
The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991/1992 led to a crisis of statelessness as new states emerged and members of various ethnic groups (e.g. Roma) were unable to obtain citizenship in their respective countries.
Gaps or Conflicts in Nationality Law
Gaps or conflicts in nationality law can prevent certain individuals from acquiring or retaining nationality. For example, some countries, such as Germany, do not automatically grant citizenship to persons born on their territory. Especially, if the parents are stateless or their citizenship is unknown, this creates a risk of statelessness for the new-born child.
Loss and Deprivation of Nationality
Governments sometimes revoke citizenship or introduce policies that result in the loss of it. An example is the denationalisation campaign against Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic in 2013, in which thousands of people had their citizenship revoked and became stateless.
Being stateless is much more painful when you know that your ability is much greater than what you are allowed to do. You don’t know your potential if you’re not given the right to exist.
The United Nations’ 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons was the first international treaty aiming at protecting stateless individuals. This convention as well as the following 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the key international conventions addressing statelessness and are complemented by international human rights treaties and provisions relevant to the right to a nationality. They were written with the objective of ensuring a minimal set of human rights for stateless persons. Among other things, both Conventions state the need for a statelessness determination procedure in order to identify stateless persons and grant them access to their rights.
When we consider the impact of statelessness worldwide, it becomes evident that although many states have ratified the Conventions on statelessness, many of them have not fully implemented into their national laws the Conventions’ measures to prevent statelessness. This leaves stateless individuals facing immense challenges in their daily lives.
Three crucial aspects need attention: (1) if states recognise statelessness as a reason for protection of the stateless person, (2) the establishment of a clear statelessness determination procedure (SDP) to identify stateless cases, and (3) how states treat individuals who may be stateless.
To improve the living conditions of all stateless individuals and effectively end statelessness, the explicit and legally binding recognition of statelessness is essential.
Let’s look at Germany as an example:
Out of the more than 126,000 stateless individuals currently residing in Germany, only 29,455 have been officially recognised as stateless (marked XXA in documents) by the German government as of the end of 2022. In contrast, 97,150 individuals have an “undetermined nationality” (marked XXX in documents). The seemingly small difference between being “recognised stateless” and having an “undetermined nationality” has significant implications for those affected and leads to these groups not being treated equally. While the recognised status grants stateless individuals access to some rights, those with an “undetermined nationality” are trapped in a legal limbo, facing even more hurdles and challenges in their everyday lives.
However, “stateless” applies to everyone who is not considered or treated like a citizen by any country. Stateless is everyone who lives without an effective nationality. This includes individuals registered with an “undetermined nationality”. Not being treated as a citizen by any country and often lacking the option to change their status due to missing documents to attain a nationality, they can and have to be viewed stateless until their nationality or statelessness has been determined and recognised effectively.
Official and legal recognition of stateless people as “recognised stateless” is a prerequisite for stateless persons to access their rights fully and to exit statelessness, e.g. through naturalisation. Yet, there is currently no procedure in Germany to transition from an “undetermined nationality” (XXX) to the status of “recognised stateless” (XXA) – or in many other countries around the globe for that matter.
The group of stateless persons is often dissected into subgroups, making the individual cases even more complex and complicated to understand.
Furthermore, statelessness is a highly intersectional topic, oftentimes going hand in hand with terms like refugee, asylum seeker and displaced person as they all represent different facets of forced migration.
While all individuals described by these terms share some (if not many) similarities – for example the lack of a clear national identity and the challenge of being displaced – it is important to acknoledge the unique challenges that arise from each status in order to best deal with them.
This is even more important in cases that fall into more than one category of the following.
Recognised & Undetermined
“Recognised statelessness” is a legal status that is linked to some rights. In contrast, “undetermined nationality” is merely an administrative term to be used for a limited period of time only and is not linked to any rights. Persons who are in the administrative category of “undetermined nationality” can be either stateless or have a nationality. This has to be clarified and determined in a dedicated procedure. Within this procedure both legal and factual circumstances have to be considered in determining the statelessness.
Real life impacts:
With an undetermined nationality, which is most often equated with an undetermined identity, obtaining a residence permit as well as potential naturalisation in the future becomes almost impossible, as a clarified identity and nationality are usually prerequisites for this. For instance in Germany, only after holding the status of “recognised stateless” for six years, stateless persons can apply for naturalisation. This remains out of reach without formal recognition of the statelessness, just like obtaining identity and travel documents. Moreover, matters that require identity verification, such as opening a bank account, picking up a parcel or checking in online, become tedious, if not impossible, tasks. Stateless persons are also denied the right to vote.
De Jure & De Facto
Another dichotomy that is being used to distinguish these two categories is “de jure stateless” and “de facto stateless”. While “de jure stateless” is comparable to the term “recognized stateless”, “de facto stateless” cannot be used synonymously with “undetermined nationality”.
In fact, the concept of “de facto” statelessness is outdated and obsolete, which is why neither the UNHCR and other UN bodies, nor the Council of Europe and the European Union use this term anymore. Instead, the term “at risk of statelessness” is used, since only the clarification of actual circumstances in an individual case makes it possible to establish statelessness or nationality.
For the application of Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons both legal (de jure) and factual (de facto) circumstances and reasons for statelessness must be considered. Accordingly, a person can be stateless and benefit from the protection of Article 1(1) based solely on factual circumstances. This means, that even if the written “law of the state” (de jure) is not the reason for a person’s statelessness, factual circumstances in an individual case can lead to a person “not being considered a national” (de facto). In particular, belonging to ethnic minorities and not being registered at birth increase the risk of statelessness.
In Situ Stateless
Statelessness does not only arise in the context of migration, but also through inheritance of status. The term in situ stateless refers to persons who are born stateless in their country of residence / their home country or stateless children that came to their country of residence before the age of 18 and thus spent the formative period of childhood and youth in that country. For these groups, it can be assumed that there is a strong connection to the country of residence as their only centre of life. Yet, they are still stateless and often do not have access to naturalisation. Out of a total of 126,000 stateless persons in 2022, around one third (36,000) were born in Germany.
In the international legal understanding a refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their home country because of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The official definition can be found in the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Some international organisations and states also consider war and violence to be reasons for fleeing one’s home country.
An asylum seeker is someone who has fled their home country and is seeking protection in another country, although their claim to a refugee status has not yet been determined. While their claim is being processed, asylum seekers are entitled to certain rights. They may have difficulty accessing basic services and may be at risk of deportation if their claim is denied.
The term displaced person is used to describe people who either fall outside the narrower definition of a refugee – or, in the sense of “internally displaced persons”, are people who have been forced to flee their homes but have not crossed an international border. Displaced persons do not enjoy the same legal status as refugees and may face additional challenges in accessing assistance and protection.
Statelessness can have many faces, different stories and histories linked to it. In our work we come across a lot of different experiences and want to share some with you in this section.
If you want to hear more about personal statelessness experiences and the perspective of stateless people, have a look and listen to the podcast The Statefree Pod or join our Community Forum community.statefree.world.
Lived Experience #1: Female, nurse, 38 years old.
Fled war in Lebanon; in Germany for 36 years; travel document for stateless persons and residence permit revoked.
In 1986, the now 38-year-old nurse fled with her family from the war in Lebanon. Due to the war, her birth was certified by a midwife but not officially authenticated, leaving her without a recognized birth certificate. In 1990, the family received permanent residence permits and travel documents for stateless persons. Both were revoked 15 years later because employees of the foreigners authority suspected that she had Turkish ancestors. Turkish authorities deny that the nurse is or could become a Turkish citizen. Nevertheless, her right of residence has been withdrawn and she is merely tolerated. She is repeatedly threatened with the revocation of her work permit, heavy fines and deportation. The resulting existential fear is compounded by the impossibility of family planning, since the status of unclear identity or statelessness would be passed on to her children. Access to naturalization remains denied because documents are not waived in the evidentiary process despite their special situation and statelessness.
Lived Experience #2: Male, musician, approx. 40 years old.
Victim of human trafficking and thus stateless; has been living in Germany for 33 years without clarified identity and statelessness and therefore only tolerated
In 1990, the now approx. 43-year-old musician arrived in Germany at the age of about five. As a victim of human trafficking, he was abducted after his birth and his right to an identity was violated. After being legally protected while being underage, the musician has been living in Germany with an unclear nationality and therefore only with a toleration for over 18 years now. Although the Foreigners Authority is aware that he is a stateless survivor of human trafficking, his identity continues to be considered undetermined, with no evidence of a country of origin other than Germany. A DNA test was done to clarify his identity, without success. And despite being left behind as a child, he is still up to this day denied the right to German citizenship.
Lived Experience #3: Female, alternative practitioner, 29 years old.
Kurdish woman; fled Iraq; refugee status; no possibility of naturalization due to lack of identity documents.
The Kurdish woman fled from Iraq to Germany with her family in 1996 at the age of three. Her birth was not registered in Iraq, so she does not have a birth certificate. She has had refugee status in Germany since 1996, nowadays she also has a permanent residence permit. Due to lack of identity documents, she could not complete her studies and education for a long time. So far, her naturalization applications have been rejected due to the missing birth certificate. However, the possibilities of clarifying her identity seem to be exhausted since no birth certificate exists. The Iraqi Embassy also stated that the Republic of Iraq has no jurisdiction over her and her family in any way. Despite the repeated rejections, the psychologist and her family are not given the opportunity to clarify their identity and statelessness without a birth certificate. After more than 20 years, the citizenship authority decided that, because the family belongs to the Kurdish minority, other countries of origin besides Iraq are eligible, namely Turkey and Iran. Once again, “negative facts must be proven,” even though her family never resided in Turkey or Iran and has no connection to these countries.
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