“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Stateless persons in Iceland, rarer than the Northern Lights?

25 March 2015 | Cecilie Becker-Christensen Saenz Guerrero, UNHCR Regional Representation for Northern Europe, and Inge Sturkenboom, Protection Officer, UNHCR Bureau for Europe

Iceland, with a population of 322,000 people, is about 1500 kilometers away from its closest neighbor on the European continent. It is a land of volcanoes, geysers, hot pools and the beautiful Northern Lights. Not an easy country to reach, and yet, a number of migrants manage to find their way to the island every year. They come to work or to study, and some come seeking asylum. Are any of them stateless?

As part of its efforts to map the scope of statelessness in Northern Europe, UNHCR presented its final report on statelessness in Iceland to the authorities in December 2014. The report, made possible thanks to funding of the Ministry of the Interior, was drafted by Hrefna Dögg Gunnarsdóttir under the joint supervision of UNHCR and the Institute of Human Rights at the University of Iceland. It provides an insight in the areas where statelessness may be a concern in the country. It looks at migrant populations and it seeks to answer the question whether statelessness can be created under Icelandic law as Iceland is not a State Party to either of the UN Statelessness Conventions.

Statelessness in Iceland

Icelandic legislation does not include a definition of a stateless person nor does it include a reference to article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. However, the research revealed that, as is the case in other countries of Europe, different registries in Iceland do collect and register data on stateless persons, but each has a different approach. Therefore, various sources report different numbers of persons. One of the sources, Register Iceland, reported an increase from 34 stateless persons in 2002 to 128 stateless persons in Iceland as of November 2013, with a residence permit that is valid for more than six months. They come from a number of countries, the largest group being registered as of Palestinian origin, coming from Iraq, and the second largest from Latvia. It also includes nine stateless children who were born in Iceland. This figure of 128 persons does not reflect stateless persons who do not have a residence permit valid for more than six months. Among those who have a residence permit for a shorter period than six months are a number who are registered as being from the former Soviet Union and the Former Yugoslavia.

So while Iceland does not harbor big populations of stateless persons, statelessness can be observed, just as the Northern Lights can. Even if 128 persons is not a high number, one person without a nationality and without rights is one too many. It gives reason to look a bit more closely at the protection of stateless persons in the country.

Stateless persons can receive a residence permit on a number of grounds: when they are recognized as refugees, as beneficiaries of subsidiary protection or when there are humanitarian grounds. They may also be granted temporary residence on an ad-hoc basis when they cannot be returned to their country of origin or country of former residence. Statelessness alone is not a ground for the issuance of a residence permit however. There is no mechanism in place for the identification of stateless persons, and statelessness is not automatically assessed in the course of the asylum procedure. Recognized refugees benefit from a reduced residency requirement when they apply for naturalization, five years instead of seven, but stateless persons do not benefit from a similar reduction in the residency requirement when applying for naturalization. Overall, we can say that while there are stateless persons among migrants in Iceland, there has thus far been little attention paid specifically to their statelessness.

What about the prevention of statelessness? The Icelandic Constitution simply says ‘No Icelandic national shall be deprived of his citizenship’. Statelessness as a consequence of deprivation of nationality is therefore not a concern under Icelandic law. Icelandic law also does not provide for automatic loss of citizenship.

As for the prevention of statelessness at birth in Iceland, the Icelandic Nationality Act gives the possibility for some children born stateless in the country to acquire Icelandic nationality, but it is limited to children who have had at least three years of residence in the country on the basis of residence permits that were valid for more than six months. In addition, the grant of nationality in these cases is a discretionary one. While this provision may benefit some children born stateless in the country, it does not provide a solution to all situations of children born stateless in the country.

What’s next?

But this can all change. The Icelandic authorities have been very receptive to UNHCR’s report and recommendations and Iceland is on its way to becoming the first country in the region to adopt a National Action Plan to End Statelessness. In February 2015, we had a chance to sit with interlocutors of the Directorate of Immigration and of various departments of the Ministry of Justice to discuss concrete actions to address statelessness in Iceland. We benefited from the expertise of Adrian Berry, who proposed a first draft Action Plan and whose experience litigating statelessness in the United Kingdom proved of great use.

The National Action Plan addresses the various concerns in the area of the identification and protection of stateless persons, prevention of statelessness, data collection, as well as the accession to the two UN Statelessness Conventions. It is based on the Global Action Plan that UNHCR launched along with its Campaign to End Statelessness by 2014. The upcoming review of the Icelandic Act and Regulation on foreigners presents a perfect opportunity to address the concerns related to the identification and protection of stateless persons and to ensure that in the future, statelessness among the migrant population is identified and adequately addressed. Iceland has also expressed its willingness to amend its Nationality Act to bring it in line with the 1961 Convention.

With Iceland being the first country in Northern Europe to launch the findings of the mapping on statelessness and the first country in the region to undertake a National Action Plan, Iceland demonstrates its willingness to take the lead in the region and to join the global movement to end statelessness by 2024.   


Register now for the European Network on Statelessness conference “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless” which will take place in Budapest on the 2nd and 3rd June 2015. More information is available here


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