What is statelessness?

The existence of statelessness in the 21st century is an indictment of the effectiveness of international human rights law, and a challenge to those working to promote, protect, respect and fulfil human rights at national, regional and international levels. Statelessness is the most acute violation of the right to a nationality; a well-entrenched principle of international human rights law. Furthermore, the stateless are vulnerable to discriminatory and unequal treatment in accessing and enjoying all other rights they are entitled to, from the rights to education and healthcare; to the freedom of association and expression; the right to liberty and security of the person and the freedom of movement. The human rights impact of statelessness on individuals, families and entire communities is well documented, but remains largely unaddressed.

“I refuse to have children as I worry about bringing a stateless child into this world.”

“I cannot get married because I do not exist.”

“I want to be seen. I just want to be treated as a human being.”

“How do I feel? Tired. Tired...Tired…”

These are the words of stateless people. In describing how they feel, one thing they share in common is the sentiment that their lives have been paralysed by their lack of nationality. Under international law, a stateless persons is someone “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” (Article 1 of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons). Where a person lacks any nationality, he or she does not enjoy the attached rights or duties, resulting in a lack of protection. A stateless person is seen and treated as a foreigner everywhere, as a national nowhere. There are more than 10 million such people in all corners of the world today.

An important distinction must be made between statelessness and the situation of being undocumented, of undetermined nationality and/or at risk of statelessness. The lack of such documentation does not necessarily mean the person is stateless. It could also mean that they may become stateless in the future (e.g. where unable to establish or prove links to the state of nationality such that this state no longer considers the person as a national). The problem is a complex one, deserving of further dedicated study.

It is also important to point out that in finding a person to be stateless, it is not relevant where in the world that person is. A person can be stateless in the country in which he or she was born, has always lived and has all family ties. Equally, a person can be stateless in a migratory context – for instance, losing nationality prior to, as a consequence of or at some point after crossing an international border. Statelessness rests on the fact of lacking a nationality, nothing more. Most stateless persons have not moved from their homes and are found in what can be described as their own country. Yet, due to the added vulnerability of stateless persons to discrimination, human rights abuse and even persecution, statelessness can also prompt forced displacement. Some stateless persons, then, become internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees. Where a person who “is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” also falls within the scope of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, he or she is a stateless refugee. That someone can simultaneously be both stateless and a refugee, asylum seeker or IDP does not lessen their experience of statelessness, which should be taken into consideration when protecting and finding durable solutions for them.