Statelessness: A Web Research Guide
By Elisa Mason
(updated April 2013)
(updated April 2013)
Stateless people are described as hidden, invisible, non-entities, and even legal ghosts. While significant strides have been made over recent years to change this profile, millions of people worldwide remain stateless. The aim of this guide is to provide an overview of the problem of statelessness and to point readers to key information sources as one small step towards addressing this problem.
Definitions, Causes & Consequences
To be stateless means that you are not considered a citizen of any country. This is the formal definition (de jure stateless) as set out in Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Other people may have a nationality but may still be defined as de facto stateless if that nationality proves ineffective, for example, when they are outside their country and denied consular protection.(1)
Statelessness can arise for a variety of reasons, such as:
Ø when new states are “created or divided or dissolved, decolonized, conquered or freed…”;
Ø because of “a change in domestic legislation, or…an incompatibility between the laws of two different states…”; or
Ø through “the deliberate exclusion of entire groups because of some political, religious or ethnic discrimination” (Refugees Magazine, p. 2).
In addition, discriminatory nationality laws can render women and children vulnerable to becoming stateless.
The consequences of not having a nationality or lacking citizenship are dire: A stateless person effectively has no rights and is not protected by the national laws of the country in which s/he resides. The following resources provide a more thorough introduction to the causes and consequences of statelessness:
- Lives on Hold: The Human Cost of Statelessness, Refugees International, 2005
- Nationality Rights for All: A Progress Report and Global Survey on Statelessness, Refugees International, 2009
- “Special Report: The Strange, Hidden World of the Stateless,” Refugees Magazine, vol. 147, no. 3, September 2007
- “Statelessness,” Forced Migration Review, no. 32, April 2009
- The World’s Stateless People: Questions & Answers, UNHCR, September 2006
Role of UNHCR
In 1974 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was mandated by UN General Assembly resolution 3274 to serve as the “body” on statelessness anticipated by Article 11 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, until the 1990s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, UNHCR was not actively involved in exercising its statelessness mandate, in part because of the low state accession rate to the 1961 Convention. In 1995 the organization was asked to become more engaged on behalf of stateless persons by both the UNHCR Executive Committee (UNHCR’s advisory body) and the UN General Assembly. In 2006 EXCOM reiterated its call for UNHCR to pursue “targeted activities to support the identification, prevention and reduction of statelessness and to further the protection of stateless persons.”
For the texts of these and other relevant conclusions and resolutions, see:
- Executive Committee Conclusions (extracts relating to statelessness)
- General Assembly Resolutions (relating to statelessness and nationality)
In 2012, UNHCR began issuing guidelines on procedures for granting legal status to stateless people according to the principles of the 1954 Convention and developing guidance on the interpretation of Articles 1-4 of the 1961 Convention. These will eventually culminate in a UNHCR Handbook on Statelessness, similar to the refugee status determination handbook, and will provide states with a concrete mechanism for enhancing protection.
The Guidelines on Statelessness currently include:
- No. 1 - The definition of "Stateless Person" in Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
- No. 2 - Procedures for Determining whether an Individual is a Stateless Person
- No. 3 - The Status of Stateless Persons at the National Level
- No. 4 - Ensuring Every Child’s Right to Acquire a Nationality through Articles 1-4 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness
To learn more about UNHCR’s activities relating to stateless people and how it fulfills its statelessness mandate, refer to the following:
- “Addressing Statelessness,” in Global Appeal: 2013 Update, UNHCR, December 2012
- How UNHCR Helps the Stateless
- Progress Reports on UNHCR's Statelessness Activities
- UNHCR Action to Address Statelessness: A Strategy Note, UNHCR, March 2010
- “UNHCR and Responses to Statelessness,” Forced Migration Review, no. 32, April 2009
It is difficult to count the actual number of stateless persons around the world. Often individuals are not registered as being stateless, data may be incomplete, or figures may be withheld for political reasons. UNHCR attempts to measure the magnitude of statelessness but acknowledged in its 2009 Statistical Yearbook that it is “not in a position to provide comprehensive statistics on the number of stateless persons in all countries around the world” (p. 26). Currently, the worldwide stateless population is estimated to be 12 million.
For more specific figures by country, see the section on “stateless persons” in the latest UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2010: Trends in Displacement, Protection and Solutions, Chapter II: Population Levels and Trends, and Table 7 in the Annex.
The statelessness surveys referenced below also provide estimates of stateless populations by country.
To learn more about who is stateless and where, refer to the following resources:
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. Department of State; note: a new section on stateless populations was added as of the 2007 edition
- “Global Review of Statelessness,” pp. 27-46 in Lives on Hold: The Human Cost of Statelessness, Refugees International, 2005
- “Global Survey of Statelessness,” pp. 28-53 in Nationality Rights for All: A Progress Reports and Global Survey on Statelessness, Refugees International, 2009
For additional country information, browse the reports listed under “Country and Region Specific Situations” on the right side of the Statelessness page in Refworld.
2. Sources of Law relating to Statelessness
As noted above, two international treaties specifically address statelessness: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The former defines stateless people, sets out their status and how they should be treated, while the latter offers safeguards for preventing and reducing statelessness. When compared to other treaties, these instruments have relatively low accession rates. As a result, UNHCR has made increasing the number of states parties an important priority. In December 2011, at a ministerial meeting in Geneva to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Statelessness Convention, a number of states pledged to accede to one or both of the statelessness conventions. As of this writing, the 1954 Convention now has 77 states parties, while the 1961 Convention has 51.
For the texts of these conventions, lists of states parties, treaty declarations and reservations, and a summary of key provisions in each, visit the UN Conventions on Statelessness page on the UNHCR web site.
For relevant commentaries on these instruments, see:
- Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, New York, 30 August 1961, UN Audiovisual Library of International Law, 2011
- Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, New York, 18 September 1954, UN Audiovisual Library of International Law, 2011
- Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons: Its History and Interpretation,
, 1955; reprinted by UNHCR, 1997 Instituteof Jewish Affairs
- “The International Legal Framework Concerning Statelessness and Access for Stateless Persons,” Contribution to the European Union Seminar on the Content and Scope of International Protection: Panel 1 – Legal Basis of International Protection,
, 8-9 January 2002 Madrid
- United Nations Conference on the Elimination or Reduction of Future Statelessness, 1959-1961
- "The United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, 1961," International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 4, 1962
Resources for promoting accession to these conventions include:
- Extracts of International Documents Encouraging States to Accede to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, UNHCR, 2010
- Information and Accession Package: The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, UNHCR, 1999
- Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians, UNHCR & IPU, 2008
The right to a nationality and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality are two principles widely articulated in international law, particularly human rights treaties. While the statelessness conventions mentioned above may suffer from relatively low accession rates, “the great majority of states are parties to one or several treaties that guarantee the right to citizenship” (Statelessness: What It Is and Why It Matters, pp. 5-6).
The UNHCR web site provides access to extracts relating to nationality and statelessness from selected universal and regional human rights instruments. The complete texts of and signatories to international conventions relating to nationality, human rights and other related matters can be retrieved via Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General in the UN Treaty Collection. European conventions on nationality and statelessness can also be retrieved via the UNHCR site.
For a helpful listing of relevant conventions, resolutions, guidelines, and other authoritative legal instruments, refer to the Annexes in Statelessness: An Analytical Framework for Prevention, Reduction and Protection,
: UNHCR, 2008. The references are organized by the specific protection issues associated with statelessness. Refworld also provides access to an extensive collection of “legal documents related to statelessness.” Geneva
You can use Refworld to view laws on nationality and citizenship. Another resource is the Protection against Statelessness database, which provides information on and analysis of the citizenship laws of European states to assess how effectively they protect against statelessness.
Legal decisions can be retrieved either by searching Refworld’s case law collection or via the following resources:
- UNHCR Compilation of Case Law on Refugee Protection in International Law, UNHCR, 2008 – see section 9
3. Additional Resources
Education and Training
A Guide to Teaching on Statelessness, UNHCR, 2010
- “[D]esigned to help university instructors to integrate one or more units on statelessness into an existing course curriculum or to develop a comprehensive course on statelessness.” Includes 18 units of study, with sample exercises and course readings.
Nationality, Statelessness and Human Rights, Spring Semester
- Annual undergraduate course taught at
in The Netherlands. Tilburg Law School
Self-Study Module on Statelessness, UNHCR, 2012
- An introductory text on the problem of statelessness.
Statelessness Summer School,
- First launched in 2012.
Bhabha, Jacqueline, ed., Children Without a State: A Global Human Rights Challenge, MIT Press, 2011
Blitz, Brad K. and Maureen Lynch, eds., Statelessness and Citizenship: A Comparative Study on the Benefits of Nationality, Edward Elgar, 2011
- See also an earlier version.
Sawyer, Caroline and Brad K. Blitz, eds., Statelessness in the European Union: Displaced, Undocumented, Unwanted,
Press, 2011 Cambridge University
van Waas, Laura, Nationality Matters: Statelessness under International Law, Intersentia, 2008
In addition to UNHCR, the following organizations have implemented projects on nationality rights and/or statelessness and provide access to news and information on their web sites:
- Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative
- Equal Rights Trust
- European Network on Statelessness
- Open Society Justice Initiative
- Plan International’s Universal Birth Registration Campaign
- Refugees International
’s Statelessness Programme Tilburg University
Other resources: Refworld functions as a comprehensive repository of legal, policy and country information relating to statelessness, and the Forced Migration Current Awareness blog points readers to relevant research and publication on statelessness and stateless persons.
(1) The definition of de facto statelessness is currently being debated. For more information, see The Concept of Stateless Persons under International Law: Summary Conclusions (2011) and UNHCR and De Facto Statelessness (2011).