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Causes of minority statelessness

9 min read

The causes of statelessness around the world are remarkably consistent: transfers of sovereignty or contested territory, discriminatory or defective laws, suspicion of communities divided by international borders or who are perceived as different or threatening, lack of legal and administrative protection for children at risk of statelessness, and the risks created by migration (especially forced or undocumented migration). All of these are issues that, where a culture of discrimination already exists, can impact especially on minorities, even if they have been present in the country for multiple generations – or longer than those discriminating against them.

State succession

The most common moment for the creation of substantial populations of stateless persons is when legal sovereignty over a territory is transferred: during the transition from colonial rule to independence, at the breakup of empires or federal states into their constituent parts, when a region splits off to become independent or on the transfer of territory between one state and another. Those whose ancestors migrated from another part of what was formerly a single territory, or who belong to a community found in two or more of the new states, may find that they are not registered or recognized as nationals of any of them.

Many members of minority groups were left without a recognized nationality following the end of the European empires in Africa and Asia over the three decades after 1945. Among these groups were, for example, descendants of labourers hired to work on tea plantations in Sri Lanka and India; farm workers imported, often forcibly, to Congo by the Belgians or to Côte d’Ivoire by the French; or Asian and Middle Eastern labourers or traders who followed opportunities in Africa or elsewhere in Asia during the colonial era.

Others, while not migrants, were nonetheless never recognized as forming part of the body of citizens when a newly independent state was established – again, a situation that particularly afflicted certain minorities. Among these are the members of the Kurdish minority whose ancestors were never registered as Syrian in the 1920s, when Syria was created as a territory (initially under French mandate) following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish people from Syria are thus particularly vulnerable among the refugees from the civil war in Syria that broke out in 2011, not least because they may not be able to prove that they are Syrian and thus entitled to refugee status.

More recent cases of state succession have also created populations at risk of statelessness. The transfers of legal sovereignty that arose from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, followed by the civil war in Yugoslavia and the partition of Czechoslovakia, created multiple opportunities for people caught between different rules and facing various kinds of discrimination to find themselves stateless. Among these groups are members of linguistic minorities who found themselves outside their ‘state of origin’ at the date of transfer of territory, including Russian speakers in the Baltic states and elsewhere, or cross-border communities in the Central Asian states, as well as members of communities welcomed by none of the successor states, such as Roma.

Political rifts and conflicts leading to the establishment of new states have also created stateless minorities in their wake. For example, when South Sudan split from Sudan to form a new state in 2011, hundreds of thousands of people of South Sudanese origin living in Sudan lost Sudanese nationality under a legal amendment that denationalized those who the Sudanese government interpreted were entitled to. Among them were many who had been resident all their lives in Sudan, identifying as Sudanese, speaking only Arabic and with no meaningful connection to South Sudan.

Nationality laws that are discriminatory or only based on descent

If the laws of a country provide reasonably open access to nationality, based on birth and residence in the territory, even a substantial stateless population will reduce over time. In this context, successive generations born in the territory acquire nationality either automatically or through naturalization. However, where nationality laws are discriminatory in their content or application, or attribute nationality to children based only on descent, the descendants of those who themselves were not recognized as nationals of the state can remain stateless over many generations. Many minority communities affected by statelessness have been impacted in this way by such discriminatory practices.

Discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity and religion in nationality law also increases the risk of creating stateless populations, especially among minority communities perceived not to originate from that country. Among those states with the most explicit forms of discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in their laws are Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Uganda. Discrimination on the basis of religion and linguistic heritage is common among Middle Eastern and North African countries. Even where there is no discrimination in the law, it may be ubiquitous in practice: for example, in the form of additional administrative burdens for proof of entitlement to nationality applied to people who are members of communities perceived to be undesirable – a situation that frequently afflicts minorities. In the most acute cases, discrimination on these grounds has created large populations of stateless people. Gender discrimination in citizenship law is also a very significant source of statelessness that, while impacting on minorities and other communities alike, can further intersect with other areas of discrimination such as ethnicity.

Border populations and contested territories

Members of nomadic populations, whose traditional territory crosses two or more contemporary international borders, frequently face similar issues. Settled communities are often suspicious of those who have ‘no fixed abode’, and discrimination has impacted their access to nationality rights as well as other services. These groups would include pastoralists in Africa, such as Tuareg (of the Sahel and Sahara desert), Fulani, known as Peuhl in French (found across West and Central Africa), Tebu (found in both Libya and Chad) and Maasai (divided by the Kenya-Tanzania border). Others live in border regions, some nomadic and some not, such as some indigenous peoples in central and southern America or the ‘hill tribes’ of Thailand. The Bajau Laut, or ‘sea gypsies’, of Southeast Asia are another minority literally at the margins of several states and often recognized as nationals of none. While some among these communities may not wish for forced incorporation into the modern state, prejudice among the dominant communities against people of their heritage often means that those who wish to access rights as nationals are unable to do so.

Forced migrants, and their descendants

Those who are forced to flee their homes by conflict or disaster are often at risk of statelessness, since documents may be left behind or lost, destroyed or confiscated during the search for a sanctuary. Without evidence of their connection, these people may never be able to re-establish recognition of the nationality that undoubtedly they are entitled in law to hold.

Disasters and conflict affect majority and minority populations alike, but members of minority groups facing discrimination may be particularly vulnerable (not least because they lack the resources to escape), and are disproportionately affected when the time comes to restore their identity documents. If officials discriminate against minorities they are less likely to accept partial evidence, witness testimonies or assertions of connection to a state from disfavoured minorities than they are from those whose membership is seen as unproblematic.

Among those most at risk of statelessness are children of displaced parents, especially refugees: if these children have grown up in another country that gives them no rights on the basis of birth and residence there, then they may face real difficulties in establishing nationality in any country, even if they have been based there for their entire life. Refugees settled in a host community for many decades or generations may effectively become an established minority in the country, yet still have no or problematic access to nationality provided to them through naturalization or based on birth in the country. Examples would include the stateless Biharis in Bangladesh (some of whom are still waiting for documents despite a positive 2008 Supreme Court decision that ruled that this Urdu-speaking minority were indeed Bangladeshi nationals) and stateless Tibetans in India. European countries with nationality laws founded on descent also need to respond to the need for protection of the children of refugees from statelessness, especially among members of the stateless Syrian Kurdish minority. Even if they are able to return to Syria, gender discrimination means that the children of Syrian women cannot acquire their mother’s nationality if the father is stateless or missing.


Intersectional issues: gender discrimination and child protection

Nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, restricting the rights of women to transmit their nationality to their children, may particularly affect members of minority groups. Gender discrimination is the most common form of explicit discrimination in nationality laws: although the trend is increasingly for gender neutrality, as of mid-2017 there were still at least 25 countries in the world that provided different rights for men and women to transmit nationality to their children. Gender discrimination impacts on minority communities especially because it can undermine social cohesion over time: women who are stateless or who cannot transmit their own nationality to their children may seek husbands and partners who have nationality papers, who are more likely to be members of other communities. Stateless men from among the minority will in turn find it hard to establish a family.

Many nationality laws and policies also fail to provide adequate substantive and procedural guarantees to ensure that vulnerable children can obtain recognition of nationality, especially orphans, children of unknown parents, or those whose parents have no documented citizenship of their own. While the absence of these legal protections can affect members of any social group, in practice it is those from the poorest and most marginalized communities who are most likely to face negative consequences, including those living in remote areas or who face general discrimination from state structures. Even those states that have the basic legal protections may not have in place the administrative mechanisms to ensure that vulnerable children are in fact able to acquire the nationality to which they are entitled under the law. For example, Lebanese nationality law provides that children born in Lebanon who are otherwise stateless shall acquire Lebanese nationality, but in practice children born in Lebanon of stateless parents are not recognized as Lebanese. This affects many people whose ancestors were resident in Lebanon but never registered as Lebanese nationals when the state was first created at the end of the Ottoman Empire, as well as those who were more recently refugees from Palestine.

Children may also be placed at risk of statelessness by lack of birth registration. Although a birth certificate is not usually proof of nationality, it forms proof of the facts that enable the child or future adult to claim or acquire nationality, whether in the state of birth or in another state. Lack of birth registration over multiple generations is one of the most common reasons for statelessness, as proof of connection to a potential state of nationality is lost: as of 2013 the births of nearly 230 million children in the world under age five had never been recorded. Birth registration is often especially difficult to access for the children of refugees, migrants with irregular status and minority groups living in areas unserved by state services or who generally face discrimination in that society.

In many countries, civil status events are only legally recognized if they are registered with the authorities, which can impact on transmission of nationality. In Indonesia, for example, lack of a marriage certificate can prevent registration of a child’s birth, and in turn prevent acquisition of Indonesian nationality. The fact that marriages that take place following traditional indigenous religious practices are not recognized by the state of Indonesia means that children of these marriages are more vulnerable to being undocumented and/or ultimately stateless.

Photo: Fulani people in Sudan. Credit: Rita Willaert.