Almost everyone on earth has a nationality.
Amanda is a Canadian. Brittany is an American. Chloe is a British. Dvorah is an Israeli. Eugenia is an Argentine. Fiona is an Irish. When they travel outside their own country, generally they have to carry a passport and are subject to immigration laws of whichever the country they are visiting.
It is so universal that almost everybody takes it for granted. Almost.
There are, however, people with no nationality — they cannot get a passport from any country.
They are called stateless persons.
How many stateless persons are there in the world? It is hard to tell because of several reasons.
- Each country defines statelessness differently.
- Different numbers are reported depending on which non-governmental organizations or government is surveying.
- Only those recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are often included in statistics.
Also: by the very nature of stateless persons as undocumented there is no centralized database.
The United Nations estimates the figure to be over 10 million mostly concentrated in South Asia and potentially Africa.
What is nationality?
The word nationality means two different things. First, it can mean ethnicity. Second, it means a status of belonging to a sovereign state. In many countries, nationality (in the second sense of the word) and citizenship are the same (for example, Canada). In some countries, they mean different things. For example in the United States, almost all U.S. citizens are nationals of the United States of America; however, those who are born in the Territory of American Samoa are not U.S. citizens even though they are U.S. nationals. In Japan, citizenship means being a registered resident of a city, not necessarily being a legal national of Japan.
In many countries, being a national confers both rights and obligations. For example, in most countries, a national is eligible to vote in elections. On the other hands, in countries such as Israel, South Korea, and Singapore, nationality obligates a person to conscription (military or national service). Most countries issue passports only to their nationals (exception: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China issues special passports to Hong Kong permanent residents who are not eligible for Chinese citizenship; also, Hong Kong permanent residents born in Hong Kong on or before June 30, 1997 may obtain a British National (Overseas) passport from the British Consulate-General, which does not confer British citizenship).
Who are stateless persons?
According to the guidelines issued by UNHCR, a stateless person lacks, at a present given moment, a nationality (a legal bond between a person and a state) whether or not there may be a relief by taking certain actions; and regardless of whether a person is located in a country of their birth, their habitual residence, or a country of their parentage or ancestry.
De jure statelessness generally refers to the above circumstance.
This may happen because of a discriminatory nationality law. For example, a person born before 1983 to a Japanese mother and a non-Japanese father did not receive Japanese nationality. This created many stateless babies between Japanese women and American servicemembers stationed in Japan (often because they were conceived outside wedlock and the men had already left the mothers when the babies were born). Such children could not receive public benefits or schooling under Japanese law in force at that time.
More recent examples involve citizens of the former Soviet Union who came to the United States before December 25, 1991. While most Soviet citizens who previously resided in the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic who are ethnic Russians could automatically receive the citizenship of the new Russian Federation, many Russians from another ex-Soviet republics were not able to receive citizenship of either Russia or another newly independent republic. Additionally, Eritreans who immigrated to another country before Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, former citizens of Yugoslavia, and Palestinians from outside West Bank or Gaza, may be de jure stateless.
In other circumstances, political dissenters or religious minorities may become stateless because of government actions taken in retaliation or persecution.
Another example is when a country requires an applicant for naturalization to renounce their previous citizenship or nationality in prior to applying for naturalization, and then the application is declined.
In some cases, a discriminatory national legislation or court ruling could cause statelessness. In 2013, the court of the Dominican Republic declared that children of Haitian immigrants who were born in the country are not citizens of the Dominican Republic. This action created a human rights crisis and international outcry, and ultimately the country’s legislative branch enacted a law to grant citizenship to those who possess a birth certificate in the Dominican Republic.
De facto statelessness refers to those who may have a legal claim to a nationality in a certain country but for practical or administrative reasons may not avail themselves to the protection of that country.
An example could include:
1. A citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in Japan. Since 1949 Japan has refused to recognize DPRK, and never officially recognized the nationality of DPRK citizens. Under Japanese law, they are treated as stateless Koreans (Chosen-jin) under a category distinct from citizens of the Republic of Korea (Kankoku-jin). Since DPRK has no embassy or consulate in Japan, the legal rights of such Koreans are extremely restricted.
2. Undocumented immigrants from certain countries. While countries such as Mexico and Guatemala actively work to protect their own nationals in the United States regardless of immigration status, people from many other countries are refused consular protection and services (such as passports) from their own countries. A few such countries even refuse to take back the undocumented immigrants when they are deported from the United States.
What rights do stateless persons have?
According to the United Nations, human rights are universal for all regardless of nationality or whether they are citizens of non-independent territories (a.k.a. colonies). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right of free movement, including rights to leave a country and to return to one’s own country. UDHR also enshrines the right of a person to be recognized before law.
In reality, however, stateless persons have very little rights. UDHR is just a declaration, and it is legally non-binding. In most countries, freedom of movement depends on having an identity document even for domestic travels (in the United States, flying commercial airlines or boarding an Amtrak train requires an ID; driving requires a driver’s license, which also requires some proofs of identity). Lack of passport or ID could land a stateless person in jail or immigration detention center, and prevents from being released for years or even lifetime.
A few countries issue a special travel document for recognized stateless persons. While such a document resembles a passport in appearance, its acceptance for international travel is generally limited. UNHCR also issues an identity paper (just a piece of paper).
A non-government organization World Service Authority also issues passports for stateless persons, with varied levels of acceptance around the world.