Stateless People

Statelessness: A Web Research Guide

By Elisa Mason
August 2011
(updated Jan. 2021)

1. Introduction

Stateless people are described as hidden, invisible, non-entities, and even legal ghosts. While concerted efforts have been taken over the years to tackle this issue, millions of people worldwide remain stateless. For this reason, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a campaign on 4 November 2014 with the specific goal of ending statelessness within 10 years. The aim of this guide is to introduce readers to the concept of statelessness and point them to key information sources as one small step towards helping to raise awareness about a challenging, but ultimately, solvable problem.

Definitions, Causes & Consequences

To be stateless means that you are not considered a national 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 person who is stateless 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 
  • Statelessness,” Forced Migration Review, no. 32, April 2009 

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:

An internal evaluation conducted in 2001 recommended greater commitment and allocation of resources to the issue of statelessness.  Today, UNHCR maintains a Statelessness Unit, and the issue of statelessness has been incorporated into the agency’s budget structure as a Global Strategic Objective and established as one of four programmatic “pillars” (the other three are refugees, reintegration, and IDPs).

To learn more about UNHCR’s activities relating to stateless people and how the organization fulfills its statelessness mandate, refer to the following:


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. In its information materials, UNHCR has regularly estimated the worldwide stateless population to be around 10 million, but it acknowledges that "this figure is not based on robust or transparent demographic methods and, as a result, its use to track progress on reducing statelessness and for policy, programming or advocacy purposes is limited." The organization provides an overview of its data sources and data collection methodologies in this paper.

For more specific reported figures by country, see the section on “stateless persons” in the latest UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2016, Table 7: Persons under UNHCR's Statelessness Mandate (pp. 43-5).

The inaugural World's Stateless report took on the ambitious task of trying to better quantify the problem of statelessness.  It concluded that there are "likely to be more than 15 million stateless persons worldwide today" (2014).

The statelessness surveys referenced below also provide estimates of stateless populations by country.

Country Profiles

To learn more about who is stateless and where, refer to the following resources:

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

International Instruments

Statelessness Treaties

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 had relatively low accession rates.  As a result, UNHCR 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 94 states parties, while the 1961 Convention has 75.  

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:

Resources for promoting accession to these conventions include:

Other Treaties

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 have suffered 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 Refworld.

UNHCR has also prepared "quick reference guides" for various conventions to highlight "key international human rights provisions found in [each treaty] that are directly relevant to preventing and reducing statelessness and protecting stateless persons." Guides are currently available for the following:
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

The Database on Statelessness and Human Rights is a new resource that allows users to "explore and compare information from the international human rights monitoring systems to promote a human rights-based approach to nationality and statelessness."

Other Instruments

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.”

National Legislation/Procedures

You can use Refworld to view laws on nationality and citizenship.

The GLOBALCIT project offers several databases that relate to citizenship, including one housing Global Nationality Laws and two others on Modes of Acquisition of Citizenship and Modes of Loss of Citizenship.

The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) has published Statelessness Determination and the Protection Status of Stateless Persons: A Summary Guide of Good Practices and Factors to Consider When Designing National Determination and Protection Mechanisms (Dec. 2013) to help states that have acceded to the 1954 Convention establish their own specific regimes for protecting stateless persons.

In 2018, ENS also launched the Statelessness Index, "a comparative tool that assesses European countries’ law, policy and practice on the protection of stateless people and the prevention and reduction of statelessness, against international norms and good practice."

In 2014, UNHCR issued its Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons to provide guidance on procedures for granting legal status to stateless people according to the principles of the 1954 Convention. Subsequently, it prepared a brochure that "explains when statelessness determination procedures are required" and "sets out what factors States should take into consideration when establishing such a procedure."

In 2017, the OSCE and UNHCR jointly produced the Handbook on Statelessness in the OSCE Area: International Standards and Good Practices to help OSCE's participating states take appropriate measures to address this issue.

In 2018, UNHCR & the Inter-Parliamentary Union issued a handbook on Good Practices in Nationality Laws for the Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness that provides "examples of model domestic law provisions in a number of thematic areas relevant to the elimination of statelessness."

Case Law

Legal decisions can be retrieved either by searching Refworld’s case law collection or GLOBALCIT's Citizenship Case Law database. See also the following resources:

3.  Additional Resources

Education and Training

- "A course book on children’s right to nationality and childhood statelessness, made up of relevant materials that have been carefully selected to introduce basic concepts and build the capacity of UNICEF staff members and civil society organizations."

Courses on Statelessness, International Institute of Humanitarian Law
- Annual; offered in different languages.

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.

- " This series of quick guides is intended to assist States, civil society and other actors to collect reliable data on statelessness, and to improve the quality of data outputs."

- An introductory text on the problem of statelessness. 

Statelessness Intensive Course, Univ. of Melbourne
- "[A]ims to provide participants with the skills and practical tools to understand and address the problem of statelessness."

Statelessness Summer Course, Institute on Statelessness & Inclusion
- Annual; first launched in 2012.

Further Reading

Bhabha, Jacqueline, ed., Children without a State: A Global Human Rights Challenge, MIT Press, 2011

Bianchini, Katia, Protecting Stateless Persons: The Implementation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons across EU States, Brill, 2018

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.

Bloom, Tendayi, Katherine Tonkiss and Phillip Cole, eds., Understanding Statelessness, Routledge, 2017

Edwards, Alice and Laura van Waas, eds., Nationality and Statelessness under International Law, Cambridge University Press, Sept. 2014

Foster, Michelle & Hélène Lambert, International Refugee Law and the Protection of Stateless Persons, Oxford Univ. Press, April 2019

Fripp, Eric, Nationality and Statelessness in the International Law of Refugee Status, Hart Publishing, Sept. 2016

Lauerhaß, Ulrike, Graham Pote & Eva Wuchold, eds., Atlas of the Stateless: Facts and Figures about Exclusion and Displacement, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2020

Siegelberg, Mira L., Statelessness: A Modern History, Harvard Univ. Press, Oct. 2020

van Waas, Laura and Melanie Khanna, eds., Solving Statelessness, Wolf Publishers, Dec. 2016

See also listings of relevant legal texts under "Nationality and Statelessness" in the Forced Migration Library.

Networking and Advocacy

In addition to UNHCR, the following organizations have either 1) implemented projects on nationality rights and/or statelessness, or 2) provide access to news, information and/or research on their web sites:

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 publications 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).