Statelessness under International Law: All you want to know.

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This article is written by Sachi Ashok Bhiwgade, from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. This article discusses the issues and challenges faced by stateless people around the world and the role of International Law. This article further discusses the Indian situation relating to statelessness.


“We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.”                                                                                                             – UNHCR

Generally, the question of nationality is a matter of domestic jurisdiction of a country. International human rights law recognizes the right to nationality of all, which means that each individual should be able to acquire, withdraw or retain his/her nationality. A person deprived of his nationality is placed in a vulnerable position. According to the report of UNHCR, the figures show that since World War II, there are more than 70 million people who have been forcibly displaced. Statelessness is a worldwide problem affecting millions of people.

Somewhere in the world, every 10 minutes a child is born stateless. Out of the 70 million displaced people, 24.9 million are refugees, 41.3 million are internally displaced and 3.5 million are asylum seekers. 80% of refugees are seeking refuge in nations that are neighbour to their origin country. Refugees are facing predicaments of war and persecution. They cannot return to their homes, even their own country is denying protection to them. Their basic human rights and even life are at risk.

What is Statelessness?

Under International Law, a stateless person means an individual who is not recognized as a national of any country. Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”. Hence if there is no link or bond between an individual and a country then such an individual will be termed as stateless.

A notable incident of statelessness is where Merhan Karimi Naserri, an Iranian refugee who was denied citizenship in his country, spent 18 years of his life at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. In 2004, his autobiography was published in the book “The Terminal”.

Causes of Statelessness

There are many causes leading to a person becoming stateless. Some common causes are discussed as under:

1. Discrimination

Many nations discriminate their citizens on the basis of ethnicity, race, colour, descent which is against the standards of international law. Not only this, there is an inconsistency between nationality law with respect to men and women. Some Nations do not grant nationality to children whose fathers are unknown or deceased. There are some countries that do not allow women to pass their nationality to their children.

As per UNHCR, equal rights to women in the matters of the nationality of their children have still not be attained in 27 countries. Another example of gender inequality law is where a child is denied citizenship if the father is stateless then the country does not confer citizenship under certain conditions on the grounds of missing or unknown.

2. Conflict and gap between laws

Nationality can be acquired in various ways – by birth, naturalization, descent, marriage, registration, etc. all countries have their own nationality law by which citizenship could be acquired or withdrawn. Around the world the most common way of acquiring nationality is through:

  • Birth (Jus Soli): where nationality is acquired by way of birth in a country. For instance, in the United States, where a child has a birthright over citizenship if born anywhere in the territory of the country.
  • Descent (Jus Sanguinis): where nationality is acquired or determined if one or both parents of a child belong to a certain country. For instance, In Indian nationality law, if a child is not born to at least one parent who has Indian citizenship, he will not be granted citizenship and hence be stateless.

Hence, if a person is unable to prove his link with a country will be at risk of becoming stateless. Let’s take an example, a child is born to an Indian father and a Chinese mother married in the UK. The child is living with his mother. Chinese nationality law doesn’t grant women the right to pass on their nationality to their children.

Indian nationality law provides that nationality will only be provided to a child who is born in India and UK nationality law provides that at least one of the parents needs to be a national of UK. This creates the problem of conflict and the gap of laws.

3. State succession

Another significant determinant of statelessness is state succession. People moving from the country where they were born to another when their origin country disintegrates, dissolved, ceases to exist or their country comes under the control of another country leads to statelessness. Dissolution of the Soviet Union by Internal disintegration, the agreement of Beloveza Accord declared the ceasing of the Soviet Union is such an instance.

4. By Renunciation

When a person voluntarily relinquishes his/her nationality or citizenship or refuses the protection of a state is said to renounce his citizenship. But this rarely happens.

The United Nations on Statelessness


Millions of people fled from their home country to seek refuge after World War I and II. Since its foundation after World War II, the United Nations has been dealing with situations of war and conflict. With war majorly leading to large-scale displacement of people.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) one of the six principal organs of the United Nations requested the United Nations Security General to undertake a study in this regard. Thereafter, three conventions were adopted to prevent people from becoming stateless. They are:

  • 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees
  • 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
  • 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

Also known as the Refugee Convention, a Multilateral Treaty of the United Nations dealing with the protection of refugees. It defines who is a refugee, sets forth the right of displaced persons and highlights the legal obligation of the states towards protecting refugees. The convention emphasises that refugees should not be sent back to the countries where they face the fear of persecution or danger of life except those who are war convicts or are considered as dangerous to the security of the country.

In addition, refugees are also required to abide by the asylum law of the country and maintain public order. Some provisions of this convention include:

  1. Article 21 – the right to have a house.
  2. Article 26 – the right to freely move within the territory.
  3. Article 31 – the right not to be punished for illegal entry while in the territory of contracting state.

1954 Convention relating to Status of Stateless Persons

This convention deals with the international protection of stateless persons. It defines who is a stateless person, provides basic rights to them and strives to solve the everyday practical problems faced by them. The stateless person is obliged to abide by the laws, regulations and maintain public order of the country in which he currently is. Certain provisions of this convention are:

  1. Article 5 – the right to freedom of religion.
  2. Article 22 – The right to education.
  3. Article 27 – A stateless person not having a travel document to be issued with identity papers by the contracting state.

1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

This Convention was brought with the aim to eradicate statelessness dealing with the conferral of citizenship giving effect to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right to nationality for all. Some important provision of the Convention:

  1. Article 1 – Subject to certain conditions, granting nationality to all stateless children born in their state, automatically or upon application.
  2. Article 2 – granting nationality to those children that are found abandoned in their state.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 with the objective of providing basic human rights to every person and to promote peace among all nations. It comprises a preamble and 30 articles. It contains provisions relating to the right to life and liberty, prevention from slavery, protection from inhumane, torturous and degrading treatment, etc.

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is an agency of the United Nations that addresses the issue of statelessness. It seeks to provide assistance of food, water, and shelter, safeguarding human rights and finding permanent solutions to refugee problems. Currently, UNHCR is working in 134 countries with a workforce of more than 16 thousand people.

The UNHCR Statistic Database provides necessary information relating to data, report, etc that is required for field operations. In 2014, The UNHCR launched a ten-year global campaign #IBelong to end statelessness by the year 2024. UNHRC believes that the issue of statelessness can be resolved with necessary assistance by political and public support.

Measures recommended by the UNHCR to end statelessness

  • By ensuring that no child is brought into the world stateless.
  • Resolving current statelessness situation.
  • Elimination of gender discrimination law.
  • Preventing statelessness in the event of state succession.
  • Facilitate naturalization of stateless migrants.
  • By ensuring birth-registration.
  • To accede to the UN Convention relating to statelessness.

Other organizations

Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI)

ISI is an NGO globally working for the rights of stateless persons. It has launched Strategic Plan 2018-2023 with a goal to create awareness about statelessness, promote inclusion and support right to a nationality.

European Network on Statelessness (ENS)

This organization is a civil society alliance, established in the year 2012 dedicated to protecting stateless persons in Europe and providing them with basic human rights. It aims to prevent the arbitrary detention of stateless people in Europe.


Statelessness affects the basic, social, economic, civil and political rights of forcefully displaced people. As a citizen of a country, a person enjoys various benefits but a stateless person is deprived of many rights and benefits, such as:

  • Right to vote;
  • Right to employment;
  • Right to home;
  • Right to register for marriage;
  • Right to education/cannot enrol children in school;
  • Right to medical care.

Statelessness in the Indian context

In August 2019, the state of Assam released the list of people who were eligible. The purpose of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was to prevent the influx of illegal migrants in the state of Assam. Around 19 lakh people in August 2019 were removed from NRC. To be legally recognized as an Indian citizen one needs to give proof that he has been residing in India before the cutoff date, that is 25 March 1971. Accordingly, one has to show documentary evidence that they or their ancestors have entered the country before the cutoff date.

What will be the fate of these excluded people?

People excluded from NRC’s Final List are required to file an appeal to Foreigner’s Tribunal and afterwards to the High Court and the Supreme Court. Ultimately, if a person is unable to prove his citizenship he will face arrest and will be sent to detention centres. Currently, Assam has 6 detention centres.


Statelessness is a serious matter and stateless persons are found in every country and often lead an invisible life as they and their rights are not recognized. The international community, especially the UN, is actively working to prevent and protect the rights of stateless persons. But despite this, new instances of statelessness keep on emerging and hence statelessness still possesses to be a major issue. More effective approaches need to be created and implemented to tackle this problem and protect the rights of these people.