There’s no place like home… if you have one

25 August 2011 by

There are somewhere in the region on 12 million people worldwide who have no nationality. Being stateless can create enormous problems, from being unable to rely on diplomatic assistance to having no home country with an automatic right to return to. The risk to stateless of people of having their human rights breached to is great. The United Nations has expressed its concern repeatedly, and is encouraging states to sign up to two conventions which provide basic rights to those without a state.

Back in March we considered a case where a man claiming asylum alleged that he was a member of a particular ethnic group which, it was accepted by the parties, is at risk of persecution in Kuwait. His claim failed as the court found him to be Kuwaiti. However, because he had no documents to show he was Kuwaiti, the Kuwaiti authorities would not allow him to enter their state. Hence the Catch-22 situation of many stateless people, where they cannot establish a right to reside in one state but have no other state to return to.

The problem of statelessness often arises when state boundaries shift, particular ethnic groups are stripped of nationality or new countries are created. Indiginous peoples living in border regions are sometimes at risk, as are Roma. Stateless people are marginalised, deported and even detained in some cases. By having no national authorities to protect their rights, they are especially vulnerable groups. Their children are commonly stateless too, which makes the situation a growing problem.

According to Antonio Guterres of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),

These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo.

The UNHCR is asking states to sign up to two Conventions: the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which will be 50 years old on 30 August of this year, and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Despite the age of these Conventions, there has been relatively little uptake. The 1961 Convention provides for rights to nationality if a person is born in a state and would otherwise be stateless, provided certain conditions are fulfilled, while the 1954 Convention protects against treatment of stateless persons which is less favourable than nationals receive with respect to freedom of religion, to give two examples.

At this anniversary, the UN is raising awareness of the problem, including a photo exhibition in New York. If all states would sign up to and comply with these Conventions, the stateless would be provided with much greater protection of their human rights than they currently have.

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