The World’s Stateless: a new report on why size does and doesn’t matter

Laura van Waas, Amal de Chickera and Zahra Albarazi (co-founders, Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion)
/ 9 mins read

Today, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion launched its inaugural World’s Stateless report. The report focuses largely on the question of statistical reporting on statelessness, with a hope to contribute to a better sense of the task of ending statelessness by 2014: knowing who and where the stateless are and how many people are afflicted by statelessness in the world today can help to inform the campaign to end statelessness. Below, is a summary of the report’s key findings.

The challenge of mapping statelessness

Quantifying statelessness is our shared responsibility. States hold the primary duty to identify stateless persons in order to implement their international obligations towards these populations –under the two UN statelessness conventions and in accordance with international human rights law. In the fulfilment of its statelessness mandate, UNHCR has been tasked to undertake and share research on various aspects of statelessness, including on the scope of the problem. Other UN agencies, NGOs and academia also have a role to play in the identification and quantification of situations of statelessness. Quantifying statelessness is a complicated task, requiring several methodological hurdles to be overcome:

Definitional issues: The definition of statelessness is not as straightforward as it appears to be. The term “not considered as a national… under the operation of its law” has been authoritatively interpreted as being both a question of fact and law. Consequently, there are persons who would legally be eligible for a particular nationality, who are nonetheless not considered as nationals by the state, and whose statelessness is consequently hidden.

Gaps in data collection tools: States may give insufficient priority to the implementation of measures to identify statelessness or accurately quantify it. Sometimes, there is even a deliberate strategy to deny the prevalence of statelessness.

Lack of adequate or comprehensive data collection: Even where data on statelessness is collected, this does not always yield comprehensive or reliable results, due to a wrong interpretation of the definition or poor methodology. Furthermore, some such exercises have been limited in their scope, focusing only on one ethnic group or geographical area of a country.

Unwillingness or lack of awareness to self-identify as stateless: Many stateless persons do not see themselves as being stateless. Even if they do, there is often reluctance to draw attention to this. Thus, data collection which relies on self-identification may not be entirely accurate.

Protection considerations in the identification of statelessness: Undocumented persons and those who are of undetermined nationality may be at risk of statelessness and indeed, some of them are likely to already be stateless. However, when such persons are in their own countries, they will almost always receive greater protection if confirmed to be nationals and the ‘stateless’ label can be counter-productive. Nevertheless, even in such situations, where the denial of documentation is long-lasting (even inter-generational), there would come a point when it is better to acknowledge such persons as stateless.

From a practical perspective too, there are various gaps in the existing data on statelessness:

Not all countries in the world are able to report data on statelessness: Today, UNHCR has reliable data on the number of stateless persons in 75 countries. This means that statelessness remains unmapped in over 50% of the world’s states.

Figures for different countries are compiled from different data sets – that use different methodologies – and do not always reveal the full picture: The data collated by UNHCR is drawn from information produced by different actors, in different places, using different approaches – not all of which deliver the same level of reliability or produce readily-comparable data.

Only persons exclusively under UNHCR’s statelessness protection mandate are reported in its statelessness statistics: UNHCR’s statistical reporting on statelessness excludes stateless persons who also fall within the protection mandates of other UN Agencies, and those who also come under other UNHCR protection mandates (such as refugees, IDPs or asylum seekers).

Global statelessness statistics

UNHCR estimates that there are ‘over 10 million’ stateless persons in the world. Due to gaps in the collection of data by governments, the UN and civil society, a full breakdown of this figure is beyond reach. Statistical reporting by UNHCR currently covers only a total tally of some 3.5 million stateless persons. A closer look at the data shows that 97.6% of the number of stateless persons reported in UNHCR statistics globally can be found in just 20 countries, which each is home to a stateless population of over 10,000. Less than 84,000 stateless persons are spread across the remaining 55 countries for which a figure on statelessness is reported.

In absolute numbers, statelessness is documented as affecting far more people in Asia and the Pacific than in any other region of the world, with UNHCR reporting a total of 1,422,850 persons. In six countries the number of stateless persons is reported to be over 10,000 and a further nine are currently marked by an asterisk in UNHCR’s statistics – meaning that there is a significant stateless population, which has not been accurately quantified. It is also evident that statelessness is severely underreported in Asia and the Pacific. It is safe to conservatively project that the true number of stateless persons in Asia and the Pacific is more than double what UNHCR is currently able to account for in its statelessness statistics. It may be far higher if there are widespread problems of statelessness in India, Indonesia, Nepal and Pakistan, as some of the available information suggests.

In contrast, the Americas currently reports the lowest number of stateless persons (at just over 200,000) and is indisputably the region with the fewest people affected by statelessness. This demonstrates the advantages of a jus soli approach to nationality (i.e. conferral of nationality at birth to all children born in the territory), the norm in the Americas, as this prevents statelessness being passed on to the next generation. Yet, the situation that has unfolded in the Dominican Republic over the past year is the most egregious new violation of international human rights norms relating to nationality and statelessness. Underreporting on the population affected in the Dominican Republic and the lack of reliable statistics on statelessness in other countries mean that statelessness affects far more persons in the Americas than currently be reported by UNHCR – how many more, is not known.

In (sub-Saharan) Africa, statelessness has been exceedingly difficult to accurately quantify. Only four out of 47 countries in this region were accounted for in UNHCR’s end-2013 statistics (currently totalling 721,303 stateless persons). Alternative data sources show widely varying estimates for countries not included in the statistics such as Madagascar and Zimbabwe. In other cases, there are no numbers at all, such as in the DRC and South Africa. It appears safe to conclude that, in Africa, statelessness is likely to actually affect more than double the number of persons currently accounted for in UNHCR’s statistics, and probably many more.

By comparison, statelessness is most comprehensively mapped in Europe. Statistical reporting on statelessness has been achieved in 40 out of 50 countries. The total figure reported by UNHCR is 670,828, some 85% of whom can be found in just four countries (Latvia, the Russian Federation, Estonia and Ukraine) – in all cases as a product of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although the phenomenon appears, at first sight, to be largely mapped, a closer look at the numbers gives reason to question whether this data is truly accurate and comprehensive. There is a problem of persons being reported as holding an ‘unknown nationality’, which is obscuring the true number affected by statelessness. It is however difficult to estimate how significantly current statistics undercount statelessness in Europe.

UNHCR reports a total of 444,237 stateless persons in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This figure excludes stateless Palestinians. Furthermore, the absence of any data for three countries which are known to have significant statelessness problems, points to substantial under-reporting. Quantifying the problem is a big challenge because of the diversity of the groups affected and the underlying causes, as well as the high political sensitivity of questions of citizenship and demography in many countries. On the basis of what incomplete data there is, it is apparent that the UNHCR statistics for statelessness in the MENA significantly underrepresent the problem and (excluding stateless Palestinians and refugees such as the Rohingya) the lowest estimate for how many stateless persons are currently unreported is 100,000 persons.

While not all stateless persons are refugees and, indeed, not all refugees are stateless, there is some overlap between these two groups. A person can be both stateless and a refugee for the purposes of international law. However, stateless refugees are not included in UNHCR’s statelessness statistics. The world’s most significant stateless refugee populations include the Black Mauritanians, Faili Kurds, stateless Kurds from Syria and Rohingya refugees. A conservative tally of the total number of refugees affected by statelessness across these and the other groups suggests that there are currently at least 1.5 million stateless refugees and former refugees around the world. Many of these persons are counted within UNHCR’s refugee statistics (a significant exception being hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the Middle East and some Asian countries).

Stateless persons of Palestinian origin are also largely excluded from present statistical reporting. While, from the point of view of international law, many Palestinians are likely to meet the definition of a stateless person, their situation is complex. Due to the mandate of UNRWA, established specifically to provide assistance to Palestine Refugees, Palestinians also enjoy different statuses and these do not align with the question of nationality status. Available data on Palestinians who fall under UNRWA mandate, Palestinians under UNHCR’s refugee mandate and Palestinians potentially under UNHCR’s statelessness protection mandate shows that there are more than five million Palestinians worldwide who are stateless under international law or whose nationality status is currently ambiguous. Upon clarification of Palestinian nationality law and who falls within its scope, this number would need to be carefully reviewed.


Our research confirms that the 3.5 million figure reported by UNHCR from collated global statistics on statelessness significantly underrepresents the scale of the problem. We found conservative estimates in other sources that would account for an additional approximately 2.5 million stateless persons. There are also approximately 2.1 million persons of Palestinian origin, who were never displaced from the West Bank or Gaza Strip and whose nationality status remains ambiguous. This brings the tally of stateless persons who are currently in some way statistically accounted for, to over eight million. The true number of stateless persons is likely to be significantly higher, due to the data gaps which were identified and could not be filled. Thus, it is clear that UNHCR’s estimate of ‘at least 10 million’ persons exclusively under its statelessness protection mandate is well founded. Furthermore, there are also at least 1.5 million stateless refugees and around 3.5 million stateless refugees from Palestine. When this is all tallied up, there are therefore likely to be more than 15 million stateless persons worldwide today.

In conclusion it must be stated that while the quest for clarity on the magnitude of statelessness is a fascinating, compelling and useful one, it is important to acknowledge that it should not be all-consuming. Having comprehensive and accurate information about who is affected by statelessness and where, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Better data will undoubtedly help in the campaign to end statelessness by 2024, but the priority needs to rest firmly with addressing – not (just) mapping – the issue.

To read the full report, click here

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