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Fact Sheet
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Washington, DC
August 1, 2008

Spotlight on a Hidden Problem: Statelessness

Fifteen-year-old Meesu was born and raised in Thailand, but she is not a citizen of any country. Facing travel and work restrictions, she fell prey to human traffickers. Police busted the prostitution ring that exploited Meesu, but with no country to go home to, she languished in jail. Her case is, sadly, not unique. She is one of the world’s stateless people, among the least visible but most vulnerable populations in the world, not recognized as citizens by any government.

Statelessness is a grave problem. Without citizenship, people often have no effective legal protection, no ability to vote, and scant access to education, employment, health care, marriage and birth registration. They may also encounter travel restrictions, social exclusion, sexual and physical violence, exploitation, human trafficking and other abuses. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality and should not be arbitrarily deprived of nationality, an estimated 12 million people around the world are stateless.

Meesu’s case was resolved after months of negotiations, but until the international community makes a broader effort to reduce statelessness, millions of individuals will continue to be deprived of the “right to have rights.”

The U.S. Government’s Commitment

Statelessness is an important human rights issue. As part of the U.S. government’s commitment to human dignity, the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) has made addressing statelessness a priority. The Department’s priorities are to:

  • prevent people from becoming de jure (legally) or de facto (effectively) stateless;
  • identify those who are stateless;
  • protect stateless people from discrimination and other abuses; and
  • promote solutions, including naturalization, birth registration, and other measures to increase access to citizenship.

The State Department has increased its support for stateless populations, using assistance and diplomacy to work toward solutions. The United States is the single largest donor to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency mandated to protect stateless people. The State Department funds assistance programs for stateless people primarily through contributions to UNHCR's annual budget, as well as targeted programs. In 2007, the U.S. provided over $2.5 million to address statelessness. This funding helped UNHCR issue temporary registration certificates for 150,000 of the stateless Rohingya in Burma’s Northern Rakhine State, making them eligible for services.

The Department also advocates on behalf of stateless people, monitors progress, and raises awareness on stateless issues. In February 2007, the Department urged officials in Vietnam and Cambodia to take measures to legalize the status of nearly 10,000 people who escaped from Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime. The government of Vietnam is now, with UNHCR, conducting a census of the stateless population and increasing public awareness among Vietnamese people about statelessness. In Bangladesh, government officials recently announced plans to grant stateless Biharis citizenship and voting rights. The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka is monitoring this solution to ensure that these people are allowed to vote in the country’s elections at the end of 2008.

Officials from the State Department work closely with members of Congress and non-governmental organizations to raise awareness about statelessness, and to identify solutions to the statelessness problem. In 2007, statelessness became a distinct sub-section of the Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, raising visibility and awareness of the problem in our periodic human rights reporting. PRM officials have testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the Congressional Children's Caucus on the issue of statelessness, and hosted a public event on statelessness alongside the UN General Assembly in New York.

The U.S. Government also accepts stateless refugees for permanent resettlement in the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, so they can enjoy a new life with full rights, and ultimately an opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship. As stated in the Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for 2008, “The United States also encourages UNHCR to refer for resettlement stateless individuals and groups for whom other durable solutions are not possible, even if they are located in their country of habitual residence.” In recent months, the U.S. Government began to accept for admission the longstanding Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal who were rendered stateless by the actions of the Bhutanese government. In recent years 10,000 Meskhetian Turks from Russia, including some 5,000 stateless individuals, have chosen to be resettled in the United States.

Background on Statelessness

Who Is Stateless?

An estimated 12 million people worldwide are stateless. According to the UNHCR, a stateless person is “someone who, under national laws, does not enjoy citizenship – the legal bond between a government and an individual – with any country.” While some people are de jure or legally stateless persons (meaning they are not recognized as citizens under the laws of any state), many people are de facto or effectively stateless persons (meaning they are not recognized as citizens by any state even if they have a claim to citizenship under the laws of one or more states).

Stateless populations exist in every region of the world. They include the Roma in Europe, Rohingyas in Burma, many Palestinians, Bidoon in Kuwait and other countries, denationalized Kurds in Syria, and persons of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.

Some Causes of Statelessness

  • Failure of hospitals and other places of birth to register newborns properly
  • Lack of financial ability to cover the cost of registration and birth certificates
  • Customs and traditional attitudes about birth registration
  • Birth to stateless parents
  • Political change and transfer of territory which may alter the nationality status of citizens of the former state(s)
  • Administrative oversights, procedural problems, or conflicts of law between two countries
  • Alteration of nationality during marriage or the dissolution of marriage between couples from different countries
  • Targeted discrimination against minorities
  • Laws restricting acquisition of citizenship
  • Destruction of official records
  • Laws restricting the rights of mothers to pass on their nationality to their children
  • Laws relating to children born out of wedlock and during transit
  • Loss or relinquishment of nationality without first acquiring another

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