It is estimated there are some 10 Million stateless people in the world today.

A stateless persons is someone “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”.[1] What is the connection between a person and a state (country)?  This connection comes through the legal form of citizenship.

Statelessness happens when an individual does not possess a nationality to any country.  

It is important to understand that in finding a person to be stateless, it is not relevant where in the world that person is. A person can be stateless in the country in which he or she was born, has always lived and has all of his/her family ties. Most stateless persons have not moved from their homes and live in what can be described as their own country or their home country.  Yet, due to stateless persons being vulnerable to discrimination, human rights abuse and even persecution, statelessness can also cause forced displacement. Some stateless persons, then, become internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees. While not all stateless persons are refugees and, indeed, not all refugees are stateless, there is some overlap between these two groups therefore. A person can be both stateless and a refugee. Unfortunately, a stateless person is seen and treated as a foreigner everywhere, as a national nowhere.

Nationality is acquired either automatically at birth or sometime after birth. If acquired automatically at birth, most of the time it is because the person is born in a country that automatically provides nationality by birth on the country's territory or because the nationality is automatically passed down from the parent to the child.  But in some situations, a person must apply for nationality.

Each state sets the conditions for acquisition and loss of its nationality – an act which is an expression of self-determination and a legitimate exercise of sovereignty – within the limits set by international law. For the purposes of determining whether a person is stateless in accordance with international law, it is not relevant how or when he or she came to be without a nationality, only whether a nationality is held at the time the assessment is being made.

Currently there are two United Nations conventions that specifically address the issue of statelessness:  the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. 


[1] United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 360 U.N.T.S. 117, 1954, Article 1(1)..

[2] Citizenship is commonly used as a synonym for nationality, also referring to this specific type of legal bond between a person and a state. In some disciplines and various domestic or regional contexts, nationality and citizenship can also have distinct meanings, but within writing on statelessness – and in this report – the two terms are used interchangeably.

[3] It is important to note however, that all persons – including those who are stateless – are protected by international human rights law. Thus, while the stateless may not necessarily benefit from rights attached to citizenship (such as the right to vote), they are entitled to the general protection of international human rights law.

[4] In applying the definition of a stateless person, determining whether a person is “considered as a national by a state under the operation of its lawrequires a careful analysis of how a state applies its nationality laws in practice, in that individual’s case. UNHCR, Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons, 30 June 2014, paragraphs 23-24.