Causes of statelessness

Causes of statelessness

Statelessness can be caused by a number of factors such as: discrimination in nationality laws (e.g. racial, religious or gender), conflict between and gaps in nationality laws and State succession. Being undocumented is not the same as being stateless. However lack of birth registration can put people at risk of statelessness as a birth certificate provides proof of where a person was born and parentage – key information needed to establish a nationality. Risks of statelessness can also arise in situations of displacement. For example, in the context of the Syria crisis, the risk of statelessness is increased by a combination of gender discrimination in Syria’s nationality law coupled with a lack of civil documentation amongst the displaced population.

Technical causes

Conflict of laws

Conflicting nationality laws are one of many causes of statelessness. Nationality is usually acquired through one of two modes, although many nations recognise both modes today:

• Jus soli ("right of the soil") denotes a regime by which nationality is acquired through birth on the territory of the state. This is common in the Americas.
• Jus sanguinis ("right of blood") is a regime by which nationality is acquired through descent, usually from a parent who is a national. Almost all states in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania grant citizenship at birth based upon the principle of jus sanguinis.

Problems may arise when nationality legislation in one State conflicts with that of another State, leaving an individual without the nationality of either State. Both sets of laws may be properly drafted, but problems arise when they are implemented together. For example, State A, in which the individual was born, grants nationality by descent only (jus sanguinis), but the individual’s parents are nationals of State B. State B, on the other hand, grants nationality on the basis of place of birth only (jus soli), but the individual was born in State A. The individual is thus rendered stateless. 

For instance, a child born outside Canada to two Canadian parents, who were also born outside Canada to Canadian parents, would not be a Canadian citizen, since jus sanguinis is only recognised for the first generation in Canada. If the child were born in India and neither parent had Indian citizenship, then the child would be stateless since India only confers citizenship to children born to at least one Indian parent.

Conflict of laws linked to renunciation

Conflicts of law on this issue may arise when one State will not allow renunciation of nationality until the individual has first acquired another nationality, while the other State involved will not grant its nationality until the individual has first renounced his / her original nationality. Sometimes an individual may be required to renounce an assumed citizenship elsewhere before he / she can apply for citizenship where he/she resides, thus rendering the individual stateless until the new citizenship is granted.

Laws and practices that particularly affect children

As stipulated by both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), all children, regardless of where they were born, should be registered immediately at birth. All children have a right to acquire a nationality. The nationality of a child will be determined according to the laws of the States involved; and all States require clarification of where the child was born and to whom. Without proof of birth, that is, without a recognised birth registration, it is almost impossible for a child to establish his/her identity and thus to acquire a nationality.

An important measure to prevent statelessness at birth provides nationality to children born in a territory who would otherwise be stateless. This norm is stipulated in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness; appears in several regional human rights treaties, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Nationality, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and is implicit in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Administrative practices

There are numerous administrative and procedural issues related to the acquisition, restoration, and loss of nationality. Even if an individual is eligible for citizenship – indeed, even if an individual has successfully applied for citizenship – excessive administrative fees, deadlines that cannot be met, and / or an inability to produce required documents because they are in the possession of the former State of nationality can all prevent the individual from acquiring nationality.

People may also become stateless as a result of administrative and practical problems, especially when they are from a group whose nationality is questioned. Individuals might be entitled to citizenship but unable to undertake the necessary procedural steps. They may be required to pay excessive fees for documentation proving nationality, to provide documentation that is not available to them, or to meet unrealistic deadlines; or they may face geographic or literacy barriers.

In disruptive conflict or post-conflict situations, many people find that difficulties in completing simple administrative procedures are exacerbated. Such obstacles may affect the ability of individuals to complete procedures such as birth registration, fundamental to the prevention of statelessness in children. Whilst birth registration alone does not confer citizenship on a child, the documentation of place of birth and parentage is instrumental in proving the link between an individual and a state for the acquisition of nationality. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated in 2013 that 230 million children under the age of 5 have not been registered.

Not holding proof of nationality—being "undocumented"—is not the same as being stateless, but the lack of identity documents such as a birth certificate can lead to statelessness. Many millions of people live their entire lives without documents, without their nationality ever being questioned.

Two factors are of particular importance:

• whether the nationality in question was acquired automatically or through some form of registration
• whether the person has ever been denied documents on the basis that he or she is not a national.

If nationality is acquired automatically, the person is a national regardless of documentation status (although in practice, the person may face problems accessing certain rights and services because he or she is undocumented, not because he or she is stateless). If registration is required, then the person is not a national until that process has been completed. 

As a practical matter, the longer a person is undocumented, the greater the likelihood that he or she will end up in a situation where no state recognises him or her as a national.

Laws and practices that particularly affect women

Some States automatically alter a woman’s nationality status when she marries a non-national. A woman may then become stateless if she does not automatically receive the nationality of her husband or if her husband has no nationality. A woman can also become stateless if, after she receives her husband’s nationality, the marriage is dissolved and she loses the nationality acquired through marriage, but her original nationality is not automatically restored.

Although many states allow the acquisition of nationality through parental descent irrespective of where the child is born, some do not allow female citizens to confer nationality to their children. There are 27 countries in the world that do not grant equal rights to women in passing on their nationality. This can result in statelessness when the father is stateless, unknown, or otherwise unable to confer nationality. There have been recent changes in favour of gender neutrality in nationality laws, including reform processes in Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal that may inform change elsewhere. For example, Algeria amended its nationality code to repeal the limitations on mothers’ ability to confer nationality on their children, replacing them with an overarching provision granting Algerian nationality to all children born in or outside Algeria to an Algerian mother or father. Moreover, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women prohibits sex-based discrimination in the conferral of nationality.

Automatic loss of nationality

Some States automatically revoke the nationality of an individual who has left his/her country or who resides abroad. Revocation of nationality, which can occur just a few months after the individual’s departure, is often associated with faulty administrative practices in which the individual concerned is not made aware that he/she risks losing his/her nationality if he/she doesn’t register regularly with the country’s authorities. If the individual is a naturalised citizen, rather than one who had been born in the State or who acquired nationality through descent, even regular registration may be insufficient to guarantee that nationality will not be revoked. Statelessness is often a direct result of these practices.

Causes linked to state succession

Transfer of territory or sovereignty

Although it is only partially addressed in specific international instruments and principles, the transfer of territory or of sovereignty has long been a cause of statelessness. National laws and practices will inevitably be altered when a State undergoes profound territorial changes or changes in sovereignty, such as when a State wins independence from a colonial power, after a State is dissolved, if a new State or States succeed(s) a dissolved State, or if a State is restored after a period of dissolution. Any of these events can trigger the adoption of new citizenship laws or decrees and/or new administrative procedures.

Individuals may become stateless in these situations if they fail to acquire nationality under the new legislation/decrees or under new administrative procedures, or if they are denied nationality because of a reinterpretation of previously applicable laws and practices.

In some cases, statelessness is a consequence of state succession. Some people become stateless when their state of nationality ceases to exist, or when the territory on which they live comes under the control of another state. This was the case when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and also in the cases of Yugoslavia and Ethiopia.

Causes linked to discrimination or arbitrary deprivation of nationality


In most large-scale statelessness situations, statelessness is a result of discrimination. One of the principal constraints on State discretion to grant or deny nationality is the proscription against racial discrimination. This principle is reflected in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and in many other instruments. In its General Recommendation on Discrimination against Non-citizens of 1 October 2004, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated that “deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin is a breach of States’ obligations to ensure non-discriminatory enjoyment of the right to nationality.” 

However, sometimes individuals are unable to acquire the nationality of a particular State despite having strong ties to that State – ties that, for other persons, would be sufficient to trigger the granting of citizenship. Discrimination based on race, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, political opinion, or other factors can be either overt or created inadvertently in the laws or as they are implemented. Laws may be said to be discriminatory if they contain prejudicial language or if the result of their application is discrimination. 

Deprivation and denial of citizenship

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of nationality. The 1961 Convention and the 1997 European Convention on Nationality strictly limit the possibilities for States to initiate the loss of citizenship. Any such loss of nationality must be accompanied by full procedural guarantees and should not result in statelessness.

Denationalisation occurs when a State deprives an individual of citizenship, usually because the State is engaging in discriminatory practices. Expulsion of the individual usually follows. 

Non-state territories

A final cause of statelessness is non-state territories. As per the definition of a stateless person, only states can have nationals. As a result, people who are "citizens" of non-state territories are stateless. This includes, for instance, residents of occupied territories where statehood has ceased to exist or never emerged in the first place. The Palestinian territories are the most prominent example. Others are Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus (depending on the interpretation of what constitutes statehood and sovereignty). An example not involving military occupation is American Samoa.

IMAGE CREDIT: Sally Hayden SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

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