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Displacement and Statelessness
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The relationship between displacement and statelessness is a close, though rarely recognized, one.  According to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, as many as one out of three stateless persons in the world has been forcibly displaced.[1] People can be stateless and live in a country they consider to be their own; for example, many Dominicans of Haitian descent who were born and raised in the Dominican Republic yet have neither Dominican nor Haitian nationality.  Some stateless people are displaced within the borders of their own country, as has occurred with many of the 300,000 Syrian Kurds who were rendered stateless by government action.  In some cases, such as with the Rohingya of Myanmar, displacement results directly from statelessness. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the UN body with a mandate to both protect refugees and to prevent and reduce statelessness.  Over twenty years ago, UNHCR drew connections between statelessness and displacement, noting that preventing and reducing statelessness is vital for preventing refugee flows.[2] While this figure is likely low for two reasons, the UNCR estimates there are at least 10 million stateless people in the world.3  First, UNHCR categorizes people as either stateless or refugees and if they happen to be both, they are counted as refugees – to avoid double counting and because the UN Convention on Refugees offers stronger protection to refugees than the Statelessness Convention offers to stateless persons.[3] Moreover, if they fall under the jurisdiction of another UN agency, they are not included in UNHCR statistics, either as refugees or as stateless.  This means that many of the 5 million Palestinian refugees falling under United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s  (UNRWA) mandate are stateless but because they are considered to be under UNRWA’s responsibility, they are not included in UNHCR’s statistics.  Sometimes the fact that people are persecuted because they are stateless may be grounds for refugee status.

As one of the few studies to look at the relationship between statelessness and displacement has helpfully spelled out, there are at least three ways that the two are related.  First, stateless communities are at risk of forced displacement.  Secondly, forced displacement may contribute to increased risks of statelessness. Thirdly, statelessness can increase vulnerability in forced displacement contexts.

It is a particular tragedy when conflict forces people from their homes and into statelessness. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.  For example, for a Colombian child born outside the country to acquire Colombian nationality, the parents must register the child with the Colombian consulate in the country in which the child was born.  If the parents don’t want to approach the consulate and if the child isn’t automatically a citizen of the country in which he or she is born, then the child becomes stateless.

The Case of Syria

While statelessness and displacement are global phenomena, affecting people in every region, the case of Syrian refugees and statelessness is one of the most dramatic examples.  Presently there are over 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.  Tens of thousands of Syrian refugee babies have been born in exile and in none of these three countries does the baby automatically become a citizen of the country where the birth takes place.  In order to acquire Syrian citizenship, a number of hurdles must be passed.  First of all, the Syrian parents must be registered with authorities in the host countries. Many Syrians are simply not registered for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear that their information will get back to Syrian authorities to long queues, which are difficult for those with disabilities or older people.  In order to register their newly-born babies with the host government authorities, all three countries also require passports and marriage certificates, but refugees often lack these basic documents because they were forced to leave their homes quickly and didn’t collect and bring those papers with them. To make matters worse, there are reports that ISIS is systematically destroying passports as a way of cutting links between Syrians and their government.[4] Even if they have the necessary documents, once the birth of the baby is registered with authorities in the country of birth, parents need to register it with Syrian authorities.  Sometimes the parents do not want to approach the Syrian embassy because they want to stay undetected or because they are so traumatized they don’t want to have anything to do with Syrian authorities.  Even when they do manage to register the baby with the Syrian Embassy, sometimes the bureaucratic process takes months.[5]  Finally, and unfortunately, Syria is one of those countries where nationality passes through the father.  If the Syrian father is not with the refugee mother, the woman cannot pass on her Syrian nationality to her child.  But it is very common for Syrian women to give birth in exile without their husbands because the men are in Syria fighting, detained, or because they are missing or dead.  In fact, a quarter of Syrian refugee families are headed by women.[6] In these situations, the child is neither Syrian nor the nationality of the country in which he/she was born.  In Turkey alone, over 70,000 Syrian babies have been born to refugees – no one knows how many of these babies are stateless.     

Syria presents so many challenges to the humanitarian community that it is easy for aid workers to overlook the issue of preventing statelessness.  Yet, unless addressed early on, large numbers of Syrians – perhaps hundreds of thousands – could find themselves without a nationality which is, of course, a basic human right.

Read more articles about migration and statelessness in the latest issue of International Affairs Forum


Elizabeth Ferris is a senior research associate at Georgetown and a non-resident senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. She joined ISIM in fall 2015 after serving for 9 years as a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement and as an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Prior to joining Brookings in November 2006, Elizabeth spent 20 years working in the field of international humanitarian response, most recently in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Council of Churches.

She has also served as Chair of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), as Research Director for the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, as Director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program in New York. She has been a professor at several U.S. universities and served as a Fulbright professor to the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City. She has written or edited six books and many articles on humanitarian and human rights issues which have been published in both academic and policy journals. Her current research interests focus on the politics of humanitarian action and on the role of civil society in protecting displaced populations.


[1] The World’s Stateless, December 2014 http://www.statelessness.eu/blog/world%E2%80%99s-stateless-new-report-why-size-does-and-doesn%E2%80%99t-matter

[2] UNHCR, Note on International Protection 1993, cited by Norwegian Refuge Council and Tilburg University, Statelessness and Displacement, Scoping Paper 2014. http://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9197390.pdf

[3] "Statelessness and Displacement: A Scoping Paper." (n.d.): n. pag. Norwegian Refugee Council, Tilburg University. Web. http://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9197390.pdf, pp. 9-10.


[4] http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21627729-thousands-syrian-refugees-are-risk-having-no-recognised-nationality-loss-nation

[5] “Syrian refugee children at risk of becoming stateless,” The National World, December 2015.  http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/syrian-refugee-children-at-risk-of-becoming-stateless.  Also see Omer Karasapan, “The State of Statelessness in the Middle East,”  Brookings Blog, 15 May 2015.   http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/future-development/posts/2015/05/15-middle-east-refugees-karasapan.  Also see Amit Sen, Charliee Dumare and Ana Pollard, “Born in exile: Syrian children face threat of statelessness,” 4 November 2014.  UNHCR.  http://www.unhcr.org/54589fb16.html

[6]“Syria: The Loss of a Nation,”  The Economist, 23 October 2014. http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21627729-thousands-syrian-refugees-are-risk-having-no-recognised-nationality-loss-nation

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