Statelessness: A Forgotten Crisis

Statelessness: A Forgotten Crisis

The Nubian community has lived in Kenya for over a hundred years, yet many became stateless after Kenya’s independence in 1963. For years, Nubian youth had to go through a nationality verification process called “vetting” in order to obtain a National ID card, and often had to wait years or were denied IDs. Two Nubian youth sit in their social club in the Kibera slum outside of Nairobi. Both now have their IDs but are unemployed after losing out on years’ worth of opportunities. © Greg Constantine.

Nowhere People
by Greg Constantine
Nowhere People, 2015, 374 pp.


Statelessness is a forgotten crisis. At least that is the claim at the heart of a recently inaugurated campaign sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to draw attention to the estimated 10–15 million people who cannot claim citizenship anywhere in the world. A person may lose the protection of a state for a variety of reasons: the breakdown of political authority, disenfranchisement, persecution, or the physical disappearance of state territory due to climate change. However, according to international agreements established in the wake of the Second World War, the term “stateless person” applies only to individuals who are not recognized as nationals by any state. Refugees, by contrast, are defined in a separate international convention from 1951 as people who generally retain their nationality but leave their countries of origin for “reasons of persecution.” Such international classifications matter. The controversy in the summer of 2015 over whether to call the thousands of people fleeing Syria and other conflict-ridden countries “refugees” or “migrants” indicates the power of legal definitions to trigger specific state obligations. It is also the reason why those in power often choose their words so carefully.

Until quite recently, the international institutions established to manage and care for people who have lost state protection treated the legally stateless as a marginal issue. While refugee law has developed into a fairly robust area of jurisprudence, statelessness has never been the subject of sustained legal study. The UN only embarked on its campaign to illuminate the plight of the stateless and lobby for their enfranchisement in 2014, the same year the first global forum on statelessness in the Netherlands brought together humanitarian practitioners and scholars to establish statelessness as its own field of research.

How did the loss of nationality become a distinct legal and humanitarian issue in the first place? And why was it then forgotten? Nationality is a legal status that has evolved since the formation of the European early modern state-system to delineate the state’s formal obligations toward its subjects. It ensures political recognition both in one’s h...