Where Does Statelessness Happen?

Bangladesh/Pakistan

When Bangladesh split from Pakistan in a 1971 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.

Burma

The Rohingya have lived in western Burma for thousands of years. As a Muslim minority group, they have faced systematic discrimination by the military regime. In an attempt to flee persecution, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have ended up in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and other neighboring countries where they continue to suffer.

Côte d'Ivoire

In the early 2000s, Côte d'Ivoire changed its electoral rules to thwart the presidential campaign of Alassane Ouattara. Thousands of Ivoirians of Burkinabe descent were denationalized, which ultimately led to a civil war. A classic example of how statelessness fuels conflict: when their candidate couldn’t run and they couldn’t vote, Ivoirians of Burkinabe descent took up arms.

Dominican Republic

The Dominican government continues to deny thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent—even Dominicans who have parents or grandparents born in the Dominican Republic—access to identification documents, despite previously having been recognized as citizens by the state.

Europe

For centuries the Roma have faced discrimination throughout Europe. Their plight is compounded by the fact that many Roma lack personal identity documents. Without these documents the Roma cannot register for school or receive necessary health care.

Estonia/Latvia

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Russians were stranded in the new Baltic states. In Estonia and Latvia, ethnic Russians have had trouble obtaining citizenship and are frequently discriminated against.

Kenya

Many of the more than 100,000 Nubians in Kenya cannot obtain identity cards or passports and are barred from traveling, working in the formal sector, and benefiting from government services. The state’s refusal to recognize Nubians as citizens encourages ethnic discrimination and hostility toward them throughout Kenya.

Mauritania

In 1989, the Arab-dominated government stripped the citizenship of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians in the country’s south. They were rounded up, had their identification papers confiscated and destroyed, and were driven across the border into Senegal, where many have since been stranded in refugee camps. Although subsequent governments have pledged to restore citizenship to these Mauritanians, the situation is far from resolved.

Middle East

Palestinians displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and creation of the state of Israel constitute what is today the world’s largest refugee population (4.6 million registered by the UN). Hundreds of thousands remain stateless and vulnerable with limited or no status in their host countries. The majority are distributed primarily in Arab countries that border Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Sri Lanka

As colonial rulers, the English moved thousands of ethnic Tamils from India to run the tea plantations in Sri Lanka and help rule over the majority Sinhalese. In 1949, the Sinhalese-dominated government stripped the Estate Tamils of their citizenship, leaving them stateless and helping fuel the civil war that plagues Sri Lanka to this day.

Slovenia

In 1996, Slovenia’s government placed the names of 18,305 longtime residents who had failed to apply for citizenship on a register of foreigners residing illegally in Slovenia. Many remain stateless today, with little or no access to social services such as health care and education.

Thailand

The Hill Tribe people have lived in the mountainous northern part of Thailand since prehistoric times. However, the Hill Tribes are not ethnically Thai and don’t speak Thai, and the government has refused to issue them ID cards or provide state services. This situation leaves them economically vulnerable, especially to human trafficking.

Zimbabwe

Using a new law prohibiting dual nationality, President Robert Mugabe’s government has refused to issue identity cards or passports to anyone suspected of having “foreign” citizenship—in practice, those with “foreign” names—unless they formally renounce their supposed foreign citizenship. The move disenfranchised opposition supporters, commercial farmers, and independent newspaper owners.

Timeline

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