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Stateless Children: Denied the Right to Have Rights

  • children
    At least 12 million people around the world are stateless, many of them children. In southern Mauritania, families of refugees have returned to their homelands after 19 years in exile in Senegal. Without official documentation, they remain in legal limbo. © Aubrey Wade for the Open Society Foundations
  • Boy holding rusty bike wheel
    Samba Siagne, 4, plays near his home in the makeshift settlement of Lisse Rosso, Mauritania. Unable to return to their former homes, many here are living permanently in tents or in crowded houses that look like large sugar cubes. © Aubrey Wade for the Open Society Foundations
  • women and a stall
    Without documents, Mauritanian returnees in Lisse Rosso are unable to pass police checkpoints and buy supplies from nearby villages. With resources scarce, a tiny shed serves as a grocery store. Abdou Diagne, 6, and Fatou Diagne, 9, mind their father's stall. © Aubrey Wade for the Open Society Foundations
  • Man sleeping next to baby
    Statelessness is frequently handed down from one generation to the next. A Dalit man and his grandson in Nepal. The man's family has lived in the country for five generations, yet neither he nor his grandson holds Nepalese citizenship. © Greg Constantine
  • Two boys wearing backpacks; two smaller boys stand nearby
    A slum outside Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, filled with stateless children. Those possessing the right documents are able to attend some public primary schools. Those without are shut out, leaving them with few prospects. © Greg Constantine
  • Boys with books
    Stateless Rohingya children in Kutupalong, a refugee settlement in Bangladesh, do not have access to schools. They only receive education from makeshift madrassas in the camp. © Greg Constantine
  • Girls making charcoal sticks
    Denial of education forces many children into wage-earning labor at an early age. Stateless children are at higher risk of child labor and exploitation, including trafficking. Girls in Gula Hut camp in Bangladesh make less than 50 cents a day making incense-like charcoal sticks. © Greg Constantine
  • Kids with parents at a playground
    In the Dominican Republic, racial discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent has led to documentation problems and statelessness for many children. Estarlin (left) was denied a birth certificate because of his father's Haitian last name. © Jon Anderson for the Open Society Foundations
  • Kids watching cartoons
    Unable to obtain basic documents, many stateless children in the Dominican live in the shadows, excluded from access to education, health care, and social services. These boys, living on the outskirts of Villa Mella, Capital District, were denied birth certificates and so were unable to enroll in school. © Jon Anderson for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman holding child, standing next to man
    Danilo, a teacher, was unable to get health insurance for his daughter, Genesis. “They told me, ‘We don't give documents to children of immigrants,’” Danilo says. “That was a shock because I don't know anything about Haiti. I am Dominican.” © Jon Anderson for the Open Society Foundations

The blight of statelessness affects an estimated 12 million people around the world. But it is in the lives of an estimated 5 million stateless children that the injustice is often most painfully evident. A stateless child grows up in the shadows, perhaps excluded from schooling, or from proper medical care, and pushed to the edge of society. A stateless child is more easily exploited and abused, and must learn to live without the protection of a government that may opt to deport or imprison without redress.  

Statelessness is often born of discrimination. And yet, this is one human rights issue that rarely gets the urgent attention it needs. 

Because most countries grant nationality on the basis of descent rather than place of birth, stateless parents hand down their own lack of legal status to their children. The Open Society Justice Initiative works to change the laws and practices that perpetuate statelessness, to ensure that every child has a country to call home.

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