Stateless people can be at greater risk of being detained or forcibly returned because of lack of identity documents | Crédit : Mehdi Chebil
Stateless people can be at greater risk of being detained or forcibly returned because of lack of identity documents | Crédit : Mehdi Chebil

Around the world, more than 10 million people -- including over a million refugees -- have no nationality. As a result, they are often denied access to basic rights like education, healthcare and employment. Statelessness is a problem of our own making, passed on from one generation to the next, which could easily be resolved.

Dilbirin has been living in Germany since 2015. He is from a group of Syrian Kurds known as Maktumeen who were never given citizenship. His only proof of identity is a hand-written Certificate of Recognition from the local community representative. 

The delays and complications Dilbirin and fellow Syrian Kurds without citizenship have faced in applying for asylum in Europe have made him question his motives. Stuck in legal limbo, he is considering asking migrant smugglers to help him return to his family in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

What is statelessness?

Dilbirin is one of tens of thousands of stateless migrants in Europe.

Stateless people are individuals who are not citizens or nationals of any country. A person can be stateless for different reasons, such as:

- when a country adopts nationality laws that exclude certain groups, or

- when a country ceases to exist.

Not all stateless people are refugees, and not all refugees are stateless. Worldwide, however, at least 1.5 million refugees are also stateless, and many more displaced people are at risk of becoming stateless.

Mohammad Al-Mustafa left Palestine at the age of five with his parents. After traveling through Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Italy and France, Al-Mustafa claimed asylum in the UK in 2010. The Home Office rejected him. He tried twice to return to Palestine, but could not because he had no papers.

In 2016, Al-Mustafa tried to claim he was stateless, but his claim was rejected because the Home Office did not accept that he was Palestinian. With no legal status in the UK and no possibility to return to Palestine, Al-Mustafa was forced to live on the streets.

Statelessness can be both a cause of displacement as well as a result.

In many cases, individuals and groups are denied citizenship through discriminatory laws and policies that also lead to oppression and persecution. These factors may force people to flee the country. Sometimes they are even encouraged to leave or forcibly deported.

At risk of statelessness

For those who are displaced but are not stateless, like the majority of Syrians who have arrived in Europe since 2015, the unstable circumstances resulting from displacement greatly increase the risk of statelessness.

Children born in exile to refugee parents can also be at risk of statelessness. These children can become stateless when their parents cannot fulfill the conditions for nationality of the country of origin (such as producing identity documents) and the host country does not accord nationality to stateless children born there.

Many states, including Syria, do not allow women to transfer nationality to their children born outside the country. If the father is unknown, missing or dead, the child born in exile may become stateless.

More vulnerable

While stateless people can be recognized as refugees and can apply for asylum the regular way, they are more vulnerable and often enjoy fewer rights than other refugees:

- Stateless people may find it more difficult to claim asylum because of lack of documentation or a state's unwillingness to allow stateless persons to enter.

- Stateless people can be at greater risk of being detained or forcibly returned because of lack of identity documents.

- Statelessness can result in limitations on freedom of movement and problems accessing aid and assistance because of lack of documentation. The rights of stateless people vary from country to country.

- Stateless people may not be able to return to their countries of origin after the fear of persecution stops because they are not nationals and have no right to enter or remain.

Statelessness status and refugee status

A stateless refugee has rights under the international conventions on stateless persons as well as the refugee convention. However, the standard of protection under the Refugee Convention is higher than the Convention on Stateless persons, so that stateless refugees often don't appear in the figures on statelessness.

People who apply for statelessness status are expected to prove that they are not a national of any country. But given the nature of statelessness, coming up with documentary evidence to support this claim is often impossible. So the authorities are advised not to set the bar too high -- as with refugee status determination, they should establish to a "reasonable degree" that a person is not considered as a national by any state.

Despite this, stateless people without documents to support their claim for asylum have at times been accused of fabricating or putting an inadequate case. In 2015, more than 100 stateless people were detained in the UK, without anywhere to be deported to, says Dilys Hartley in the Oxford Human Rights Hub.

What can be done about stateless refugees?

States have a right to decide who their nationals are. But according to international human rights law, everyone has a fundamental right to a nationality. More than 60 years on from the 1954 Convention, the UNHCR launched #IBelong in 2014, with the aim of tackling the problem by 2024.

As a start, the UNHCR wants all countries in Europe to sign up to the two international agreements: The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

In addition, people need to be made aware of the problem, and of ways to fix it. It can be a matter of simply closing gaps in citizenship laws, for example, so that babies born in a country, who would otherwise have become stateless, become citizens of the country. Many countries in Europe, including Germany, do not automatically grant citizenship to children born there.

Birth registration is another important way to help prevent statelessness among migrants and refugees, says Kerry Neal, senior child protection adviser at UNICEF. However, the UN estimated in 2017 that 70 percent of Syrian children born abroad after their parents fled the conflict are not registered at birth. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, many refugees lack information, or give up because they fear the authorities or cannot afford to register.


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