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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Government Responses to Statelessness

Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Senior Policy Officer Nicole Shepardson
Washington, DC
February 28, 2013


Thank you for including me in this important discussion. I work in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (also known as PRM or BPRM). For those who may be unfamiliar with this office, it is the humanitarian arm of the State Department. We promote protection and provide humanitarian assistance to persecuted and uprooted people around the world – refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees, stateless persons, conflict victims, and vulnerable migrants. Our programs exceed $1.8 billion annually, and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations overseas – such as health care, emergency shelter, water and sanitation, assistance for survivors of gender-based violence, etc. – as well as resettle refugees in the United States. In addition to administering these programs, a large part of PRM’s work involves humanitarian diplomacy. By this I mean, advocating, negotiating and working with other governments and humanitarian actors to protect these vulnerable populations of concern and to find solutions to their plight.

I am pleased that you’ve asked me to speak on the topic of “Government responses to statelessness” because governments are so central to preventing and reducing statelessness. Governments are responsible for preventing statelessness by eliminating discrimination in nationality laws and ensuring universal birth registration, for example. And it is governments who take action to reduce statelessness by granting citizenship to stateless persons.

For the U.S. Government, statelessness is an important issue in our foreign policy. We are committed to addressing the global problem of statelessness as part of our overarching commitment to champion human rights and dignity. Because the problem of statelessness is rooted in the relationship between a government and an individual, the consequences of statelessness can have a dire impact on almost every aspect of a person’s life.

The personal implications of being stateless can be tragic. Imagine having no government to provide you basic protection or essential services. In fact, far from relying on government to protect you, you only hope that government will overlook you, leave you alone, not molest you. You are a citizen of nowhere and your residence is in the seams and shadows of illegality. You have no right to vote. You may not be able to register your marriage or the birth of your child. You probably have no identity documents, so you cannot work or travel freely and you may not even be able to open a bank account, rent an apartment, call the police or go to the hospital in an emergency. And because, without documentation, you don't officially exist, you are highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including being trafficked for labor or sex. Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to these risks. Finally, when you die, your death may not be documented in any official way and you may not be able to bequeath to your loved ones any property you may have been lucky enough to acquire. No matter your gifts, your hopes, your personal achievements, you are not accepted as “belonging” in your country, even if it’s the only place you ever lived.

For most of us, our citizenship is secure and we tend to take it for granted. Statelessness seems like an abstract concept. And so without government recognition, millions of stateless people around the world remain “hidden.” The abuses and injustices they suffer are largely unnoticed, unreported. For this reason, the United States’ first broad foreign policy objective regarding statelessness is to create awareness about stateless people and the challenges they encounter. We are working to raise awareness within the Administration, the Congress and the public.

In 2007, the Administration included a statelessness section in each of our individual country reports on human rights practices, and this has proven to be an important tool to document a hidden problem and create awareness within and outside of government. Since then, senior Department officials have made numerous speeches, published articles, and taken other efforts to raise awareness about statelessness. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton capped these efforts by speaking about her concern about statelessness at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ ministerial event in Geneva in December 2011. I encourage you to check out PRM’s webpage on to read her remarks and explore other resources on our statelessness page.

Also in our efforts to create awareness and increase knowledge of statelessness issues, my bureau has supported three research projects. The first, carried out by Kingston University, examined the costs of statelessness. This study used quantitative and qualitative methods to compare the livelihoods of stateless persons with those of citizens in four countries (Bangladesh, Kenya, Slovenia and Sri Lanka). Among its most striking findings, the study proved that statelessness reduces household income by a third. It also found that the average education of stateless households is lower than that of citizens by at least one year and in some cases as many as six years.

Two other research projects are currently underway and focus on the impacts of statelessness on women and children. One is examining the impacts of discriminatory nationality legislation on stateless women and children in North Africa and the Near East, with a focus on protection and access to basic services. The other is investigating the relationship between statelessness and vulnerability to trafficking in persons in Thailand. Because these research projects are still underway, we do not yet have findings or recommendations to report, but will share them publicly when they become available.

Our second major foreign policy objective regarding statelessness is to encourage strong action on these critical issues by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – in particular, we support UNHCR’s mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness, and to protect stateless persons. The United States is by far the largest single donor to UNHCR, providing over $770 million to UNHCR in FY 2012. These contributions to UNHCR’s core budget include support for its efforts to address statelessness.

Third, the Administration seeks to use diplomacy to mobilize other governments to prevent and resolve situations of statelessness. U.S. diplomats engage directly with governments to advocate for the prevention and reduction of statelessness. The vehicles we use are many and varied – bilateral human rights dialogues; field missions and monitoring; multilateral diplomacy in forums like the UN Human Rights Council; and efforts in regional bodies.

For example, following the outbreak of communal violence that particularly affected the Rohingya community last June in Burma’s Rakhine State, four of the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretaries (two from regional bureaus for East Asia and South and Central Asia, one from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and one from PRM) traveled there and to Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh in September. In both Burma and Bangladesh they discussed with government officials and key stakeholders what more the international community can do to improve the security, stability and humanitarian situation over the long-term. As you know, the Rohingya were rendered stateless by Burma’s 1982 citizenship law. The State Department continues to engage at the highest levels in Burma and with affected governments throughout the region to address the plight of the Rohingya.

Additionally, in 2008, I joined PRM’s Southeast Asia Program Officer on a trip to Vietnam and met with the Ministry of Justice to discuss naturalization issues for Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as statelessness arising from Vietnam’s nationality law in cases of divorce between Vietnamese women and foreign nationals. Since then, the Government of Vietnam has made significant progress in addressing the situation of stateless populations. Among the 2,357 stateless Cambodians, 1,367 persons have been naturalized and the remaining 990 individuals are in the process of naturalization. At the same time, the Vietnamese government is facilitating the naturalization of another 7,200 stateless refugees from Cambodia currently living in Ho Chi Minh City. Of this group over 1,000 persons have applied for Vietnamese citizenship. The same simplified procedure will also be applied in the naturalization process of any other stateless groups in the country. An estimated 3,000 Vietnamese women have benefited, after returning to their villages without knowing that they had become stateless as a result of their divorce.

Similarly, PRM’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary David Robinson returned earlier this month from a mission to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where he sought to demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to support efforts that improve access to civil documentation for persons of Haitian descent who are at risk of statelessness throughout the Caribbean. The State Department also has worked through the Organization of American States as a regional forum, by sponsoring resolutions on statelessness and the right to identity.

The Dominican Republic is a good example of a situation where actions by the U.S. Government and efforts by the church have complemented each other. While PRM and the U.S. Embassy have engaged in robust diplomacy, church leaders and the Jesuit Refugee Service have played a critical role in defusing conflicts and xenophobic violence in border communities, in facilitating access to documentation, and in assisting Haitian migrants and persons at risk of statelessness who have suffered attacks and human rights abuses.

Finally, I want to highlight the Women’s Nationality Initiative as a key aspect of the U.S. Government’s response to statelessness. Consistent with her efforts to promote gender equality and women’s rights as human rights, Secretary Clinton launched this initiative in late 2011 to combat discrimination against women in nationality laws that often results in statelessness. This initiative continues under our new Secretary Kerry, and has two main objectives:

1. To increase global awareness of the importance of equal nationality rights for women, and the consequences of discrimination against women in nationality laws and statelessness

2. To persuade governments to amend nationality laws that discriminate against women, ensure universal birth registration, and establish procedures to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship for stateless persons.

Our efforts to implement the Women’s Nationality Initiative thus far are focused in three countries: Benin, Nepal and Qatar. In Nepal, for example, the U.S. Embassy has formed a working group with UNHCR’s country office and local NGOs to coordinate advocacy to address discrimination against women in Nepal’s nationality law. Embassy staff have conducted extensive field missions to meet with stateless persons in several districts in Nepal. Our Ambassador and other senior Department officials continue to raise this issue with Nepali government officials and members of parliament to persuade them to revise nationality provisions as part of the drafting of the country’s new constitution.

 Also as part of the Women’s Nationality Initiative, the United States spearheaded last year’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on the right to a nationality with a focus on women and children. This resolution was the first in the 66 year history of UN human rights bodies to shine a spotlight on the right to a nationality proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The resolution drew governments’ attention to the problem in nearly 30 countries where nationality laws discriminate against women, barring or limiting their ability to acquire and retain nationality and, importantly, confer it to their children. Ultimately, it garnered the co-sponsorship of 49 governments and passed by consensus and without controversy. It is an example of highly successful multilateral diplomacy.

In all of these efforts, I believe there are opportunities for greater partnerships with faith-based organizations like yourselves to address the global problem of statelessness. Churches can help create awareness and educate their parishioners about the causes of statelessness and the challenges that stateless persons encounter. Churches also can play an important role in fostering the sense of “belonging” that stateless persons lack in their communities and in advocating solutions with their governments. I hope that my presentation has given you a good sense of how the U.S. government is seeking to address statelessness around the world, and perhaps sparked some ideas for future actions.

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