How does UNHCR help stateless persons (4/4)?

The international human rights regime rapidly gained ground after WWII. The situation of all postwar refugees, many of them also stateless, precipitated the drafting of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This Convention was originally presumed to cater to the needs of stateless people too, as it was thought that all stateless people were inherently refugees as well. When this proved to be a misconception, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons was adopted. This Convention provides for the legal status of “stateless person” for individuals who find themselves without a nationality and guarantees a minimum standard of protection. In short, it revolves around improved protection and identification of stateless people, as we discussed previously.

As the 1954 Convention did little in the way of preventing or reducing statelessness, the Convention was complemented by the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which deals with the right to a nationality by identifying which State bears the responsibility of conferring (or refraining from withdrawing) nationality in order to prevent new cases of statelessness from arising. The object and purpose of the 1961 Convention is not the complete elimination of statelessness, but the reduction of cases of statelessness at birth and of the causes of statelessness by the automatic loss of nationality later in life or through deprivation of nationality. It was seen earlier that the 1961 Convention provides for a number of mechanisms which aim to prevent statelessness.

It’s not immediately clear how the fourth and final category, that of reduction, is different from the prevention of statelessness. UNHCR explains that “reducing statelessness means finding a solution for those without a nationality. There is one solution for statelessness – acquisition of nationality, usually of the country with which stateless people have the strongest ties”. For this purpose, UNHCR works with national governments to make changes to legislation and procedures in order to recognise stateless people as nationals. UNHCR also liaises with NGOs, civil society organisations and stateless communities to empower stateless people to access nationality.

A few examples may help illustrate the four categories discussed in this series. Within the protection category we may zoom in on two priorities, namely to protect stateless persons from arbitrary detention and human trafficking. While the European Network on Statelessness reported recently on a case of arbitrary detention in Bulgaria, around the same time the European Court of Human Rights found the extended detention of certain stateless individuals illegal. The relation between statelessness and arbitrary detention has been the subject of a critical report by Equal Rights Trust after a two-year research project.

It is also frequently observed that statelessness increases the risk of human trafficking, the logic being that not having a nationality is a major barrier to accessing education, employment, health care and many other basic rights. One of the few projects exploring the link between statelessness and human trafficking was conducted in Thailand. The study concluded that it is the combination of three root causes (poverty and lack of education; subjective factors related to a person’s character; and a sudden dramatic event in one’s life acting as a trigger) that makes stateless people vulnerable to human trafficking.

As for the identification of statelessness, we can see that the creation of statelessness determination procedures is not keeping pace with the successful UNHCR campaign that was launched in 2010 and which aimed at increasing the number of ratifications of the 1954 Convention. As we illustrated with an infographic, while the 1954 Convention has been widely ratified in the Americas only four countries in the region proceeded to installing a procedure.

This concludes our four-part series on statelessness, which showed that there is more to statelessness than simply a lack of nationality. Even if countries have acceded to the relevant international instruments that try to combat statelessness, they need a proper framework in the form of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure and a functioning Civil Registration and Vital Statistics system to address the underlying causes of statelessness. A further complicating factor, as recently pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, is that 75 per cent of the world’s stateless populations belong to minorities, raising a host of non-citizenship related issues.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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