Quick Facts

  • There are stateless children in every country throughout the world.
  • An estimated 50 million births per year are unregistered
  • The worldwide total is estimated at 41% of annual births

Who is a Stateless Child?

Nationality establishes what rights and responsibilities are provided to a person, and grant him/her citizenship. Many people do not have a nationality or citizenship because they lack official proof of birth. These individuals are denied rights associated with citizenship.

For clarification, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as “a person under the age of 18 unless national law recognize the age of majority earlier.[1] International law defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” Examples of groups who fall under this definition as stateless include: Roma, Bedoons, Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans, and millions of individuals without an official birth certificate or formal papers declaring nationality.

How Many Children are Stateless, and Where are these Children?

An estimated 50 million births per year are unregistered. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest percentage of unregistered births; however, South Asia has the largest number of unregistered children in any one region. Many countries, like Afghanistan , Cambodia , Eritrea , Ethiopia , Namibia , and Oman , have no mandatory birth registration system. The percentage of annual births not registered in 2000 are as follows, listed by region: Sub-Saharan Africa 71%, South Asia 63%, Middle East and North Africa 31%, East Asia and Pacific 22%, Latin America and Caribbean 14%, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Baltic States 10%, Industrialized Countries 2%; the worldwide total has been estimated at 41%.[2]

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How are Stateless Children Impacted?

A child lacking citizenship and being defined as a stateless person is affected in many ways. Without citizenship a child does not have access to basic rights. He or she is often denied health care, education, the right to residence and travel, access to justice, and safety and physical well-being. In many countries, stateless children may not be vaccinated and are not eligible to receive treatment at medical centers. Stateless children are not allowed to enroll in public funded schools in many countries, and in other countries they are forced to pay for schooling which is free to children able to prove citizenship. When these children grow to adulthood, they frequently are on the margins of society, since they face significant barriers to basic freedoms like marriage, land ownership, voting, or opening a bank account.

Stateless children are not able to obtain passports without proof of residence, and if they leave their country of residence they may not be able to return without proof of citizenship. A stateless child, without official documents, may be prosecuted for a crime as an adult. Children without birth records are often targets for traffickers and child sex exploiters because they stateless children are often easier to hide and manipulate. It is also easier to recruit a stateless child into the military because of the inability to prove their actual age.[3]

Why are Children Stateless?

There are several reasons why so many children all over the world are without nationality. Lack of birth registration occurs in countries where the government allocates insufficient funds for this purpose or where the poverty of the nation necessitates priorities other than birth registration. Also, children from poor families sometimes cannot afford expensive child registration fees, and many families from rural areas cannot cover the cost of travel to urban centers where registration centers are typically located. Other parents do not understand the importance of birth registration or are uncertain about how to register their children.

There are legal barriers to establishing nationality, especially in countries where citizenship is determined by parents’ nationalities or the birthplace of the child. Also, many people face persecution due to their race or ethnicity, as some governments refuse registration services to ethnic minorities they consider undesirable. These same governments also discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities by amending laws to marginalize or even facilitate the expulsion of these groups.[4]

When political turmoil leads to state dissolution or the fleeing of citizens to other countries, the incidence of children becoming or being born stateless is high. State dissolution, in general, often leads to people losing their citizenship rights. In addition, children who are born in refugee camps are often refused the right to be registered in the state to which they have fled.

Poor families, including families of migrant workers and bonded laborers, face economic obstacles that prevent parents from registering their children. Social and cultural barriers also contribute to the increasing number of stateless children. In many cultures, babies are not delivered in hospitals or medical facilities but rather in people’s homes. In countries that rely on hospital and medical records for the registration process, these births that occur in homes are not recorded. Another barrier in registering children results from the cultural acceptance of abandoning children. The practice of abandoning children is tolerated or accepted in cultures that have a preference for male children, bias against interracial marriages and/or stigma against women who are sexually active outside of marriage. As a result, many children are given to orphanages, admitted into state-run institutions, left to care for themselves, or killed by their families by deliberate murder or persistent neglect.

Finally, some cultures or governments require evidence of a child’s “legitimacy.” Most societies define an illegitimate child as a child born out of wedlock. Where citizenship is granted on the basis of a parent’s nationality, legitimacy may be an important factor in determining which nationality the child “inherits.”[5]

Protecting Stateless Children

New programs initiated by government agencies and community based organizations aim to help families register their children. Governments are reaching out to poor, rural and refugee communities. Some governments are also using technology to make the registration process simpler and easy to use. Finally, community groups are helping families understand and gain access to birth registration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15: asserts that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.[6] Also the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Article 7(1) states that “national governments must register children immediately after birth and children enjoy the right from birth to acquire a nationality.” The CRC requires that governments protect that right as the children mature. According to the CRC, governments must place their international obligation to protect children’s right to nationality ahead of other national considerations. The CRC states that national governments have a duty to grant children born in their territory citizenship if the child is not recognized as a citizen by any other country.[7]

States that have ratified the CRC are expected to put into practice policies and programs that guarantee that children’s families and national authorities can secure citizenship for every child in that nation. Every country in the world, except the United States and Somalia , has ratified the CRC. Somalia has not ratified the Convention because they lack a formal functioning government.

There are many organizations that can provide you with more information about stateless children and birth registration. These organizations provide information about stateless children, and advocate and implement programs relating to this issue. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provides information about birth registration and has a searchable database.[8] The United Nations High Commission on Refuges (UNCHR) addresses the issue of stateless children and has information regarding the rights of refugees and internally displaced people.[9] PLAN International is an international child focused development organization. They have implemented a birth registration campaign which encourages governments to establish more effective and accessible systems for birth registration.[10] These organizations and Youth Advocate Program International work to ensure that every child is given the right to a citizenship and a nationality. You can help in your community by educating others about the problem of stateless children in the world and by supporting the work of organizations that strive to give every child a country to call home.

Get Involved

If you are interested in the issue of stateless children, you can raise awareness of this issue by educating yourself, your peers, colleagues, students, teachers, family members, and others around you who are interested in this issue. You can also look for opportunities to volunteer with organizations working on this issue, or donate funds or supplies to organizations that are working to prevent and eliminate this problem. You can also participate in legislative efforts and write letters to your Congressional Representative urging him/her to learn more about the issue and assist in improving the lives of these children.


[1] Sarah Aird, Helen Harnett, Punam Shah, Stateless Children Youth Who Are Without Citizenship ( Washington DC : Master Print Inc. 2002), 1-2 add Youth Advocate Program International to all these sources from our booklet.[2] Ibid, p.4-5[3] Ibid, p.6-7[4] Ibid, p. 9[5] Ibid, p.18-19[6]

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