What Does Statelessness Mean?

What does it mean to be stateless?

A stateless person is not recognized as a citizen by any state. This is important because citizenship is the essential foundation of a person’s legal identity. It is your right to have rights. Citizenship enables you not only to vote, hold public office, and exit and enter a country freely, but also to obtain housing, health care, employment, and education. Citizenship is necessary in order to live a decent human life. Stateless people are denied that right.

Who is stateless?

Statelessness is a problem of global dimension. It affects 15 million people around the world from the Kenyan Nubians in Africa to the Thailand Hill Tribes in Asia to Dominicans of Haitian-descent in the Caribbean. Although some stateless people are refugees, many have never crossed a border or left their country of birth. Yet around the world, although the problems related to statelessness may manifest themselves differently, at the root is a group of people who have been denied a legal identity.

Why should I care?

Stateless people suffer terrible personal consequences. Often they do not have the ability to go to school, access healthcare, or obtain a job. And stateless people are more vulnerable to violence and other rights violations.

Beyond the individual human toll, statelessness has social and political dimensions as well. Statelessness is often an underlying factor in civil conflicts, human rights violations, and insecurity among states. Armed conflict and insecurity do not stay confined to different parts of the world. Everyone has an interest in ensuring human security and citizenship for all.

What is the role of citizenship in an open society?

Citizenship is integral to an open society. Everyone—regardless of their legal status—has a right to fundamental conditions of human decency. Open society embraces the notion of human community, to which statelessness is antithetical. All persons have a right to participate in the communities where they live, and stateless persons are denied that right.

What can be done to solve this problem?

The world has a long way to go before the right to citizenship is assured. Too often the focus has been on the consequences of statelessness—human trafficking, discrimination, armed violence—rather than on eliminating statelessness itself. There are several things we can do in order to help make this right a reality.

We must document the problem. We still have only estimates of the number of stateless people around the world. Documentation can demonstrate the scope and significance of the problem, as well as the fact that statelessness appears to be growing.

We need to get existing institutions to act more effectively on behalf of the stateless, whether the U.S. Department of State—which only recently took on the task of including in its annual country reports on human rights practices the issues of citizenship or statelessness—or the United Nations Human Rights Council, which should appoint a special rapporteur to report annually on the situation of the stateless around the world.

We need to do a better job at ensuring that national and international laws make it easier for people to become citizens and make it harder for states to deny or deprive people of citizenship.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to combat statelessness?

The Open Society Foundations are working on the problem of statelessness in a number of ways: documenting the plight of stateless people through official reports and documentary photography; partnering with local advocates to bring lawsuits challenging citizenship discrimination; and advocating for change in international bodies such as the United Nations, the African Union, and the U.S. State Department. Finally, the Open Society Foundations try to amplify the voice of stateless people by providing a platform from which they can share their stories.


Despite numerous attempts to eradicate statelessness, the problem persists. This timeline shows selected efforts to resolve the problem, as well as a handful of historical examples that illustrate the enduring nature of statelessness.

  1. 1920s
    1. 1920

      Following the end of World War I, the League of Nations is created to preserve peace. Throughout its existence, the League’s Court of International Justice will take up several disputes between countries relating to citizenship.

    2. 1922

      The League of Nations issues Nansen passports, internationally recognized identity cards for stateless refugees, partially as a response to the Russian Revolution.

  2. 1930s
    1. 1930

      The League of Nations adopts The Convention on Certain Questions Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Law which states: “it is in the general interest of the international community to secure that all its members should recognise that every person should have a nationality.”

    2. 1935

      The Nuremberg Laws in Germany strip Jews of their citizenship paving the way to the Holocaust.

  3. 1940s
    1. 1945

      The United Nations is created following the end of World War II.

    2. 1947

      The partition between India and Pakistan leaves thousands stateless—a problem still unresolved for many to this day.

    3. 1948

      The UN General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article asserts that “Everyone has a right to a nationality” and that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.”

    4. 1948

      Burma gains independence from the British. Successive Burmese regimes refuse to provide the Rohingya Muslim minority with full citizenship rights.

    5. 1948

      Palestinians displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict constitute what is today the world’s largest refugee population (4.6m registered with UNRWA); amongst them hundreds of thousands remain stateless and vulnerable with no or limited status in their host countries.

  4. 1950s
    1. 1952–1960

      British colonists recruit Nubians from Sudan to fight in an anti-colonial rebellion in Kenya. Thousands of Nubians that are left behind remain to this day in Nairobi’s slums denied citizenship.

    2. 1954

      The UN adopts the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The convention provides legal status for someone who is not considered a national under the laws of any state and remains the primary international instrument with the goal of regulating and improving the status of stateless people. Only 62 states have ratified the convention.

    3. 1959

      Kuwait’s nationality law leaves a third of the population—mostly descendants of Bedouin tribes—without citizenship. Many remain stateless to this day.

  5. 1960s
    1. 1961

      The United Nations adopts The Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to address some of the root causes of statelessness. The convention creates a positive obligation of states to eliminate and prevent statelessness in nationality laws and practices. Like the 1954 convention, the impact of this convention is limited by the 33 states that have ratified it.

    2. 1965–66

      The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide further guarantees on the right to nationality.

  6. 1970s
    1. 1971

      When Bangladesh split from Pakistan in a civil war, hundreds of thousands of Biharis loyal to Pakistan were stranded. Pakistan has refused to accept these people, many of whom are still living in internal refugee camps, and Bangladesh does not consider them citizens.

    2. 1975

      Mozambique’s 17 year civil war (1975-1992) leaves thousands of children who fled to Zimbabwe to escape the conflict stranded without access to identity documents.

    3. 1979

      The United Nations adopts The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which states that women are equal to men concerning the acquisition or retention of their nationality and the ability to confer nationality to their children.

    4. 1976–79

      Between the Spanish withdrawal in 1976 and the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara in 1979, an estimated 110,000-155,000 Sahrawis sought refuge in Algeria. Many are still stateless. This is particularly a problem for women as Algerian citizenship is derived exclusively from the father. Children of an Algerian mother and a refugee father are not eligible for Algerian citizenship.

  7. 1980s
    1. 1985

      The 1985 Citizenship Act in Bhutan—which specifies that applicants for citizenship must have proficiency in the dzongkha language and have 15–20 years of residency in the country—has left more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese in the country stateless. This is a particular problem for children as they can only qualify for automatic citizenship by birth if both parents are citizens.

    2. 1989

      The United Nations adopts The Convention on the Rights of the Child which contains important articles relevant to protecting the nationality of children. Children have “the right to acquire a nationality” and states are required to ensure the implementation of citizenship rights, especially in instances where the “child would otherwise be stateless.”

    3. 1989

      The Arab-dominated government stripped the citizenship of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians in the country’s south. Thousands are relocated to camps across the border in Senegal. Despite pledges from subsequent governments, thousands are still stateless. This is a particular problem for Mauritanian children born in the Senegalese camps.

  8. 1990s
    1. 1990

      The African Union adopts The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which includes important provisions on nationality.

    2. 1991–99

      The break-up of Yugoslavia and the resulting Balkan wars also took a heavy toll on the Roma. Tens of thousands were evicted from their homes and fled into neighboring countries, increasing their risk of becoming stateless.

    3. 1997

      The Council of Europe adopts The European Convention on Nationality which encourages states to consider using expedited naturalization procedures for stateless persons and recognized refugees.

  9. 2000s
    1. 2002

      After the war that ravaged Côte d’Ivoire it is estimated that nearly twenty percent of country’s 18 million inhabitants have documentation problems.

    2. 2005

      The Inter-American Court of Human Rights rules that the Dominican Republic must extend full citizenship to all Dominicans of Haitian descent. The country continues to ignore this ruling.

    3. 2006

      The United Arab Emirates moves to naturalize 10,000 individuals—mainly from Zanzibar—who had been stateless for over three decades.

  10. Today
    1. Globally 15 million people are stateless