Photo: Syrian Kurdish refugees take ferry to Athens; © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Statelessness is often overlooked in asylum and migration debates. It is a hidden but very real issue affecting many refugees and migrants in Europe.

What is statelessness?
A stateless person is someone who has no nationality, someone who is not recognised as a citizen by any State. Statelessness is a legal anomaly that affects over half a million people in Europe – both recent migrants and those who have lived in the same place for generations – denying many their fundamental rights. The legal definition of a stateless person is found in the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless PersonsFind out more about statelessness in Europe here.
Who is affected by statelessness?
Statelessness affects more than 10 million people around the world and at least half a million in Europe alone. In Europe, statelessness occurs both among recent migrants and people who have lived in the same place for generations. Among refugees, of the four million people who applied for asylum in the EU in 2015-2018, around 50,000 were recorded as ‘stateless’,  and around a further 60,000 as having ‘unknown nationality’.  Many more refugees come from countries (such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, Bahrain, or Turkey) where discrimination in nationality laws, state succession or deprivation of citizenship practices mean that they or their children may be at risk of statelessness.
What rights do stateless people have in Europe?

Like the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons enshrines in international law a set of rights and protections to be afforded to stateless people by signatory states (almost all European States). In order to grant stateless people these rights, States must be able to identify and determine who is stateless on their territory. Best practice is to do this through a statelessness determination procedure (SDP) set in law, and a handful of European countries have these in place (including for example, Italy, France, Spain, and the UK). For detailed information on the specific rights of stateless people in 18 European countries and information about other regional and international norms, refer to ENS’s Statelessness Index. Children have specific rights including under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 7), which guarantees every child the right to a legal identity and a nationality. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1997 European Convention on Nationality also enshrine the right of every child who would otherwise be stateless to acquire the nationality of the state in which they were born.

Why is statelessness relevant to my work with refugees?

Statistics give an indication of the scale of statelessness in Europe, but data is sparse and often incomplete because of the challenges of accurately identifying and recording nationality problems. Statelessness remains, therefore, a largely hidden phenomenon. This is particularly so in the refugee context where on the one hand, European countries are increasingly encountering stateless people in their asylum systems, but on the other, legal frameworks, policy and capacity to identify, record and determine statelessness are lacking. The fact that an asylum applicant may be stateless is often critical when assessing their claim for international protection . Whether someone is stateless or a national of their country of origin not only impacts on the initial assessment of their claim, but also on the nationality rights of their children, and access to procedures such as family reunion or naturalisation (as well as the possibility of return) because they are unlikely to have documentary proof of identity and family links. Stateless people (like refugees) are due specific rights under international law and risk discrimination if their statelessness is not identified and acted upon, so improved knowledge and awareness among all those working with refugees is vital.

Initiative led by:

European Network on Statelessness

The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) is a civil society alliance of over 170 non-governmental organisations, academics and individual experts in 41 countries, committed to addressing statelessness in Europe. ENS believes that everyone has the right to a nationality and that those who lack nationality altogether – stateless persons – are entitled to full protection of their human rights.