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 recognised 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 marginalise 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.
UNHCR’s statistics on statelessness focus mainly on de jure stateless people: those not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. However, data from some countries also include people of undetermined nationality. By the end of 2017, statistics on people falling under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate were available for 75 countries. In addition, UNHCR has information about the existence of stateless populations but where reliable figures were not available. These countries remain priorities for UNHCR in its efforts toward improved data on statelessness.
Number of countries reporting statistics on stateless persons (2004-2018)
In 2018 millions of people were not considered nationals by any State – knowing who and where they are is the first step towards ending statelessness.
Improving global data on statelessness remained a significant and important challenge in 2018. Stateless people, who are not considered as nationals by any State, often live in precarious situations on the margins of society and are frequently not included in States’ data collection exercises, including censuses. Despite the increased awareness of statelessness globally and stronger efforts by States and UNHCR to encourage and capacitate governments to identify stateless individuals on their territory, fewer than half of countries have official statistics on stateless people.
This year UNHCR was able to report on people coming under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate for 78 countries, based on information reported by States and other sources. In addition, UNHCR has information about the existence of stateless populations but where reliable figures were not available. These countries remain priorities for UNHCR in its efforts toward improved data on statelessness. Data on some 3.9 million stateless persons are captured in this report, but the true global figure is estimated to be significantly higher.
The identification of stateless people is key to addressing difficulties they face and to enabling governments, UNHCR and others to prevent and reduce statelessness. Action 10 of UNHCR’s Global Action Plan to end Statelessness (GAP),81 the guiding framework to achieve the goals of UNHCR’s #iBelong Campaign, accordingly calls upon States and others to work to improve quantitative and qualitative data on statelessness. in addition, Action 6 of the GAP calls for the adoption of statelessness determination procedures that will lead to new data in countries hosting stateless migrants.82 Strengthening of civil registration and vital statistics systems in accordance with Action 7 of the GAP also will contribute to the availability of quantitative data.83 States are encouraged to make concrete pledges in one or more of these areas in connection with the High Level Segment on Statelessness that UNHCR will convene on 7 October 2019 to mark the mid-point in the #iBelong Campaign.
UNHCR works with States to undertake targeted surveys and studies (including participatory assessments with stateless individuals and groups). During 2018, a number of new studies were completed, including for Albania,84 Switzerland and the east African community.
Statistics and information on the situation of stateless populations can also be gathered through population censuses. it is therefore important to include questions to allow for the identification of stateless populations in the 2020 round of population and housing censuses. UNHCR operations are collaborating with statisticians and relevant authorities to include appropriate questions in upcoming censuses. UNHCR encourages all States to include questions in censuses that will lead to improved data on stateless people.
In 2018, progress continued to be made to reduce the number of stateless people through acquisition or confirmation of nationality. A reported 56,400 stateless people in 24 countries acquired nationality during the year, with significant reductions occurring in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Sweden, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, among other places. in Sweden, for example, an estimated 7,200 people had their nationality confirmed in 2018, as did an estimated 6,400 in the Russian Federation.
Many displaced people are also stateless. while the current reporting methodology generally does not involve reporting on multiple statuses, in 2017 it was decided that it was important to report on the displaced stateless Rohingya population as having both statuses. Therefore, as was the case last year, this population is included in both the displaced and stateless counts.
In addition to the people falling within the categories of forcibly displaced, returns and/or stateless, UNHCR may provide protection and assistance to a number of other individuals “of concern” to the organization, based on international agreements, their situation, other regional documents or General Assembly resolutions. Typical examples include returned refugees who remain in need of UNHCR assistance beyond one year after their arrival, host populations affected by large refugee influxes, and rejected asylum-seekers who are deemed to be in need of humanitarian assistance.
By the end of 2018, there were 1.2 million people reported within this category. in previous years, Venezuelans in Latin American and Caribbean countries present under arrangements outside the formal asylum system (such as temporary residence permits, labour migration visas, humanitarian visas and regional visa agreements) were included in this category. This population is now not reported under “others of concern” in 2018 but rather as “Venezuelans displaced abroad” (see page 24 for more details on the Venezuela situation).
The largest group of individuals in the “others of concern” category were hosted by Afghanistan, where many refugees who had returned through the UNHCR- assisted voluntary repatriation programme (489,900) remained of concern to the Office during their initial phases of reintegration. Assistance to Afghan refugees continued beyond the first year of return, and UNHCR assisted these returnees through the provision of cash grants and via reintegration projects in the reporting period. About 17,000 individuals who had returned in 2014 were no longer assisted in 2018 while the assisted population increased by about 58,000 people who had returned in 2017.
Uganda reported assisting some 180,000 people in this category. This population comprised Ugandan nationals living in refugee-hosting communities who benefitted directly or indirectly from interventions implemented through the Regional Refugee Response Plan – education, health, water, sanitation and other interventions aimed at helping local communities meet the challenges of the arrival of a large number of refugees.
The UN refugee agency is hosting a major intergovernmental meeting in Geneva on Monday to assess progress at the midpoint of its #Ibelong campaign which aims to end statelessness by 2024. Here are examples of stateless populations:
Myanmar / Bangladesh
In 1982, Buddhist-majority Myanmar passed a citizenship law that effectively rendered stateless most Rohingya, who are Muslim and of South Asian descent.
Ethnic violence has driven many to leave, but hundreds of thousands remain in Myanmar. There are about 900,000 Rohingya in neighbouring Bangladesh and smaller populations across Asia.
Some are sold into slavery on fishing boats and plantations.
Ivory Coast is home to 692,000 stateless people. Many are descended from migrants from neighbouring countries who were encouraged to work on Ivory Coast's coffee and cotton plantations in the 20th century.
At least a quarter of Ivory Coast's population is estimated to be of foreign descent, and the question of who is or is not Ivorian helped fuel two civil wars in the West African country.
Nearly 479,000 people are stateless, including members of ethnic hill tribes such as the Yao, Hmong and Karen who live in the mountainous border with Myanmar and Laos, and the semi-nomadic "Sea Gypsies" along the Andaman coast.
Estonia / Latvia
When the Soviet Union broke up, many ethnic Russians remained in the new Baltic states and were defined as "non-citizens".
Nearly 221,000 stateless people live in Latvia and 78,000 in Estonia, mainly ethnic Russians who have trouble obtaining citizenship and at times face discrimination.
In 1962, many Kurds in the northeast were stripped of citizenship, a move Human Rights Watch described as part of a plan to "Arabise" the resource-rich region.
Before the civil war, there were an estimated 300,000 stateless Kurds in Syria, many of whom were promised nationality by President Bashar al-Assad in reaction to the 2011 uprising.
UN data suggests the number fell to 160,000, but this may be partly because many fled the war. Human rights experts have warned that babies born to Syrian refugee women in Lebanon and Jordan could end up stateless.
Stateless people are known as Bidoon, which is short for bidoon jinsiya meaning "without nationality" in Arabic. Some trace their origins to nomadic tribes that once moved freely around the Gulf region.
There are about 92,000 Bidoon in Kuwait, according to UN data, but some estimates are much higher. They are often barred from free education, healthcare and many jobs.
Although Nepal says it does not have a stateless population, experts on statelessness believe many people, possibly hundreds of thousands, may be affected.
Part of the problem derives from a law banning women married to foreigners from passing their nationality to their children. There is also a stateless population of people who were expelled by Bhutan in the 1990s.
A 2013 court ruling, along with earlier changes to nationality laws aimed at tackling illegal migration, has left many stateless, mostly people of Haitian descent who were born in Dominican Republic.
In 2015, there were about 134,000 stateless people, according to UN data, but the figures are being updated.
There are about 47,500 stateless people who include Bidoon and Faili Kurds, an ethnic group that historically live both sides of the Iraq-Iran border.
More than 100,000 Faili Kurds had their nationality revoked in 1980 under the Ba'ath regime. Although many have since had their nationality reinstated, others remain stateless.
Tens of thousands of stateless Roma - an ethnic group with origins in India - are thought to live in central, eastern and southern Europe. With the break-up of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, successor states claimed they belonged elsewhere.
Other Roma in Kosovo and Bosnia have become stateless due to war-time displacement.
Roma are often unable to register their children's births or hold official property titles. This can make it hard to prove where they are from.
Some children born to Venezuelan parents who have fled to other countries amid a political and economic crisis at home are at increased risk of statelessness.
SOURCES: UNHCR, IOM
IMAGE CREDIT: UNHCR / M. Hofer