Before World War II
The status of slaves and inhabitants of conquered territories in the Greco-Roman world of antiquity is in some ways analogous to contemporary statelessness. In antiquity, "statelessness" affected captive and subject populations denied full citizenship, including those enslaved (e.g., conquered populations excluded from Roman citizenship, such as the Gauls immediately following the Gallic Wars, or the Israelites under Babylonian captivity).
Some characteristics of statelessness could be observed among apostates and slaves in Islamic society (the former shunned for rejecting their religious birth identity, the latter having been separated from that identity and subsumed into an underclass). Statelessness also used to characterize the Romani people, whose traditional nomadic lifestyles meant that they traveled across lands claimed by others.
The Nansen International Office for Refugees was an international organization of the League of Nations in charge of refugees from 1930 to 1939. It received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Nansen passports, designed in 1922 by founder Fridtj of Nansen, were internationally recognized identity cards issued to stateless refugees. In 1942, they were honored by governments in 52 countries.
Many Jews became stateless before and during the Holocaust, because the Nuremberg laws stripped them of their German citizenship.
After World War II
The United Nations (UN) was set up in 1945, immediately after the end of World War II. From its inception, the UN had to deal with the mass atrocities of the war, including the huge refugee populations across Europe. To address the nationality and legal status of these refugees, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) requested that the UN Secretary-General carry out a study of statelessness in 1948.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. It provided both a right to asylum (Article 14) and a right to nationality (Article 15). The declaration also expressly prohibited arbitrary deprivation of nationality, which had affected many of the wartime refugees.
In 1949, the International Law Commission put "Nationality, including statelessness", on its list of topics of international law provisionally selected for codification. In 1950, at the behest of ECOSOC, that item was given priority, and ECOSOC appointed an ad hoc Committee on Refugees and Stateless People to draft a convention. A treaty on refugees was prepared with a draft protocol addressing the status of stateless persons.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted on 28 July 1951. As of January 2005, it had attracted the signatures of 145 state parties. Since the International Refugee Organization—the predecessor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—was in the process of being dissolved, the convention was adopted without the protocol addressing statelessness.
The International Law Commission, at its fifth session in 1953, produced both a Draft Convention on the Elimination of Future Statelessness and a Draft Convention on the Reduction of Future Statelessness. ECOSOC approved both drafts. In 1954, the UN adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. This convention provided a definition of a stateless person (which has since become part of customary international law, according to the International Law Commission) and set out a number of rights that stateless persons should enjoy. The convention thus became the basis for an international protection regime for stateless persons. However, in order to ensure that the rights enumerated in the convention are protected, states need to be able to identify stateless individuals.
Seven years later, in 1961—only one year after the 1954 convention entered into force—the UN adopted the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
In 2014, following a series of expert meetings, UNHCR issued a Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons.
Stateless refugees covered by the 1951 convention should be treated in accordance with international refugee laws. As of 1 September 2015, 86 states were party to the 1954 convention, up from 65 when UNHCR launched its conventions campaign in 2011.
Statelessness since 1961
On 13 December 1975, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness entered into force. It provides a number of standards regarding acquisition and loss of nationality, including automatic loss, renunciation, and deprivation of nationality.
In 1974, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested that UNHCR undertake the functions established by the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. While the convention had only 37 state parties on 1 January 2011, 33 states pledged to accede to it at a ministerial event organized by UNHCR in December 2011. As of 1 September 2015, the number of state parties had increased to 64.
Starting in 1994, the UNHCR Executive Committee (ExCom) and the UNGA asked UNHCR to broaden its activities concerning statelessness to include all states. In 1996, UNHCR was asked by the UNGA to actively promote accessions to the 1954 and 1961 conventions, as well as to provide interested states with technical and advisory services pertaining to the preparation and implementation of nationality legislation.
An internal evaluation released in 2001 suggested that UNHCR had done little to exercise its mandate on statelessness. Only two individuals were tasked with overseeing work in that area at UNHCR headquarters, though some field officers had been trained to address the issue. The evaluation also noted that there was no dedicated budget line.
Concerned organisations such as the Open Society Justice Initiative and Refugees International have called for UNHCR to dedicate more human and financial resources to statelessness. In 2006, a statelessness unit (now a statelessness section) was established in Geneva, and staffing has increased both in headquarters and in the field. As part of an overhaul of UNHCR’s budget structure in 2010, the budget dedicated to statelessness increased from approximately US$12 million in 2009 to $69.5 million in 2015.
In addition to regular staff in regional and country offices, UNHCR has regional statelessness officers in Dakar, Senegal, for West Africa; Nairobi, Kenya, for the Horn of Africa; Pretoria, South Africa, for Southern Africa; San José, Costa Rica, for the Americas; Bangkok, Thailand, for Asia and the Pacific; Almaty, Kazakhstan, for Central Asia; Brussels, Belgium, for Europe; and Amman, Jordan, for the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2004, ExCom instructed UNHCR to pay particular attention to situations of protracted statelessness and to explore, in cooperation with states, measures that would ameliorate and end these situations. In 2006, it provided UNHCR with more specific guidance on how to implement its mandate. The Conclusion on Identification, Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness and Protection of Stateless Persons requires UNHCR to work with governments, other UN agencies, and civil society to address statelessness. UNHCR's activities are currently categorized as identification, prevention, reduction, and protection.
UNHCR has achieved some success with campaigns to prevent and reduce statelessness among peoples in the Crimean peninsula (Armenians, Crimean Tatars, Germans, and Greeks) who were deported en masse at the close of World War II. Another success has been the naturalization of Tajik refugees in Kyrgyzstan, as well as campaigns that have enabled 300,000 Tamils to acquire Sri Lankan citizenship. UNHCR also helped the Czech Republic reduce the large number of stateless persons created when it separated from Slovakia.
At the beginning of 2006, the UNHCR reported that it had records of 2.4 million stateless persons, and estimated that there were 11 million worldwide. By the end of 2014, UNHCR had identified close to 3.5 million stateless persons in 77 countries and estimated the total number worldwide to be more than 10 million.
UNHCR does not report refugee populations in its statelessness statistics in order to avoid double counting, which would affect the total number of "persons of concern". Stateless refugees are counted as refugees, not as stateless. For the same reason, Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) are not reported in the UNHCR statelessness table.
Instead, they are referred to elsewhere in UNHCR's statistical reporting.
While the two UN conventions on statelessness constitute the primary international framework for the protection of stateless persons and the reduction of statelessness, there are also regional instruments of great importance. The 1997 European Convention on Nationality, for example, has contributed to protecting the rights of stateless persons and provides standards for reducing statelessness in the Council of Europe region. That document emphasizes the need of every person to have a nationality, and seeks to clarify the rights and responsibilities of states in ensuring individual access to a nationality.
Today, some of the largest populations of stateless persons are found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, India, Kenya, Latvia, Estonia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Nepal, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Thailand.
IMAGE CREDIT: Norwegian Refugee Council