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The aftermath of World War II and the reconfiguration of nation states created a surge of stateless populations, which led the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include Article 15, which states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and should not be deprived arbitrarily of his or her nationality.  Statelessness exists in every region of the world, but remains a largely “hidden” problem without government recognition.

What Does It Mean To Be Stateless?

A stateless person is someone who, under national laws, does not enjoy citizenship – the legal bond between a government and an individual – in 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).

How Many Stateless People Are There Throughout the World?

At the end of 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (the agency mandated to prevent and reduce statelessness) counted 4.2 million stateless persons worldwide, but estimated that the actual number may be over 10 million due to underreporting.

What Are the Causes of Statelessness?

The following are some common causes of statelessness:

  • Lack of birth registration and birth certificates;
  • 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, conflicts of law between two countries, or destruction of official records;
  • Alteration of nationality during marriage or the dissolution of marriage between couples from different countries;
  • Targeted discrimination against minorities;
  • Laws restricting acquisition of citizenship;
  • Laws restricting the rights of women 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.

What Are the Consequences That Stateless People Encounter?

Without citizenship, stateless people have no legal protection and no right to vote, and they often lack access to education, employment, health care, registration of birth, marriage or death, and property rights.  Stateless people may also encounter travel restrictions, social exclusion, and heightened vulnerability to sexual and physical violence, exploitation, trafficking in persons, forcible displacement, and other abuses.

How Can Statelessness Be Prevented or Mitigated?

Key efforts to prevent and reduce statelessness include:

  • Creating awareness of statelessness and identifying stateless populations.
  • Universal birth registration and other forms of civil documentation.
  • Increasing access to naturalization or citizenship by:
    • Eliminating discrimination in nationality laws; and
    • Building administrative capacity for civil registry.

What Is the State Department Doing To Help Stateless People?

The State Department provides humanitarian assistance and engages in diplomacy to prevent and resolve statelessness.  The United States is the largest single donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency mandated to protect stateless people.  The State Department advocates on behalf of stateless people with foreign governments and civil society organizations, and conducts field monitoring of the conditions and challenges that stateless people encounter.

Through diplomacy and contributions to UNHCR’s core budget, the United States supports the #IBelong Global Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024 .  The United States is a member of the Geneva-based “Group of Friends” of the #IBelong campaign, and monitors UNHCR’s statelessness activities in the field to track progress toward its Global Action Plan to End Statelessness .  In some cases, the United States funds non-governmental organizations to provide assistance and advocate on behalf of stateless people.

Of note, to mark the mid-point of the #IBELONG Campaign to End Statelessness, UNHCR convened a global High-Level Segment on Statelessness  as part of its Executive Committee meeting in October 2019.  This High-Level Segment on Statelessness was an intergovernmental meeting of United Nations Member States and other stakeholders.  The meeting gave States and others the opportunity to:

  • Highlight key achievements in addressing statelessness since the #IBelong Campaign was launched in November 2014; and
  • Deliver concrete pledges to address statelessness in the remaining five years of the #IBelong Campaign.

The State Department is also working to combat discrimination in nationality laws that prohibit women from transmitting citizenship to their children or foreign spouse on an equal basis with men, which often results in statelessness, to create awareness of the problem of gender discrimination in nationality laws and statelessness globally, and to persuade governments to repeal and amend nationality laws that discriminate against women.

Are There International Agreements on Statelessness?

International legal instruments related to statelessness include:

  • 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15
  • 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
  • 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness
  • 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 24
  • 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 7
  • 1997 European Convention on Nationality

Links and Resources:

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future