Main issues

Statelessness is a hidden feature of the forced migration context in Europe. Of the four million people who applied for asylum in the EU in 2015-2018, nearly 100,000 were recorded as ‘stateless’ or of ‘unknown nationality’’. Many more refugees come from countries where gender discrimination, gaps in nationality laws, deprivation of citizenship practices and/or the legacy of state succession mean they or their children may be at risk of statelessness. This includes some of the main countries of origin of refugees arriving in Europe, such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea and Sudan. Not only is Europe not doing enough to uphold and protect the specific rights of stateless people under the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, it is also producing new cases of statelessness, because gaps in European states’ nationality laws mean that children can and are still being born stateless in Europe.

To protect the rights of women, men and children on the move who are stateless or at risk of statelessness and ensure equal access to international protection and essential services, their nationality problems must be identified and acted upon. But this rarely happens. Only a handful of European States have legal frameworks in place to determine statelessness and grant stateless people protection. Only half of European States have full safeguards in their nationality laws to prevent childhood statelessness.

Here, we explain the different ways that statelessness and nationality problems can present challenges for people seeking protection in Europe at the different stages of their journeys and provide resources to help those affected and those working with them to overcome these challenges.


The experience and impact of statelessness in someone’s country of origin can affect their migration options, strategies and decisions. Stateless people can be at greater risk of exploitation, and may face additional difficulties navigating bureaucracies, or when seeking to access different pathways to protection, due to their marginalisation and lack of documentation.


There is no standardised procedure to identify and register statelessness on arrival in Europe, so stateless refugees are often wrongly ‘assigned’ a nationality by officials during nationality screening based on their country of origin or language or may be recorded as having ‘unknown’ nationality. This can cause a range of problems later when people try to correct errors in the information recorded on arrival, and obscures the true scale of statelessness as accurate data is not available.


Inaccurate recording of nationality status on arrival can affect how people are routed through status determination procedures, and may lead to people spending lengthy periods of time in reception centres if there are delays. Low levels of awareness among service providers about nationality problems mean there is a lack of tailored support, information and services for asylum seekers affected by statelessness.


The failure to identify and register statelessness on arrival does not only affect the prospects of nationality problems being addressed but can also have an impact on the outcome of refugee status determination procedures. Doubts about someone’s nationality can impact negatively on the assessment of credibility. Where statelessness is identified, a claim that is based significantly on someone’s statelessness may not be perceived as grounds to grant asylum or may delay the determination procedure as decision-makers lack the necessary expertise.


Due to lack of documentation and proof of family links, as well as exclusion from state bureaucracy in countries of residence, stateless people can face insurmountable barriers to family reunification, resettlement and other complementary pathways to protection, which are exacerbated by inflexible procedures and strict eligibility requirements.


The right of every child to a nationality and to have their birth registered immediately is clearly established in international law (for example, Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is binding for all European states). Birth registration is vital to establishing legal identity and preventing childhood statelessness. A birth certificate is essential evidence of a child’s family ties and helps to establish their nationality. However, barriers to the registration and/or certification of births to refugees in Europe are being reported. Many European countries also lack full legal safeguards in their nationality laws to prevent children from being born stateless on their territory. It is never in the best interests of a child to be left stateless, or to grow up without a nationality.


Stateless people can face significant additional barriers to integration. International law requires states to make every effort to facilitate the integration and naturalisation of stateless people on their territory. As a consequence of experiences of exclusion and discrimination in their countries of origin, stateless people can face challenges when navigating administrative systems and seeking to access services, including education or employment for example. In the absence of a Stateless Status in many European countries, stateless people who are not also recognised as Refugees (or holding another form of residence or protection status) are at risk of being denied the rights due to them under the 1954 Convention.


Although international law recognises that the solution to statelessness is access to a nationality, stateless people can face many barriers to naturalisation. The 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons requires states to ‘make every effort to facilitate the naturalisation of stateless people’. But very few countries adhere to this obligation. Few provisions to facilitate access to naturalisation for stateless people exist in law, and even where they do, they are often not implemented properly.


The very nature of statelessness can mean that a stateless person usually has no country to which they can return. If someone’s statelessness is not identified, and they find themselves with no route to legal residence in Europe, they can end up subject to repeated, unsuccessful removal attempts. In many countries, this can mean enduring repeated or prolonged periods of detention, which may be arbitrary.

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.