Europeans without citizenship: how being stateless means living without rights

At least 381,000 people in the European Union have no official nationality, depriving them of fundamental rights.


Illustration: Civio

Imagine not being able to sign a work contract or not being able to access social or even health services. Forget travelling, enrolling in university or getting married. That is the reality for thousands of people not recognised as nationals by any state. “They have no rights,” says Nina Murray, head of policy and research at the European Statelessness Network (ENS) a London, United Kingdom-based network of civil society organisations.

Many stateless people, Murray explains, come from states that have disappeared. Or they have been displaced from their homes by war or for other reasons. Others have no nationality, because of gaps in the laws of their country of birth: they may be the children of stateless persons or of people whose countries do not recognise as citizens the children born to their citizens abroad. Some people are stateless because the country where they live does not recognise their country of origin as a state, as in much of the European Union (EU) for people from Palestine or Western Sahara.

In 2013, UNHCR launched an action plan to end statelessness by 2024. However, just ahead of the deadline, the agency’s figures for stateless people as of mid-2023 were still far from the goal: around 381,000 stateless people in the EU in 2023. However, UNHCR itself acknowledges that, because it is based on data provided by governments and NGO, the real figure must be higher. It is precisely the people not included in official statistics, the invisible people, who face the most difficulties.

Since the middle of the last century, two UN conventions have aimed to guarantee minimum rights for stateless persons. First, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines which people fall into this category and requires signatory countries to provide them with access to basic rights that are at least the same as those enjoyed by legally resident foreigners. Then there is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which limits the requirements that stateless persons must meet to be obtain nationality. However, France, Greece and Slovenia have not yet ratified the 1961 Convention, and Cyprus, Estonia and Poland have not even acceded to the 1954 Convention, according to the latest report on statelessness by the European Migration Network (EMN), an EU-funded intergovernmental organisation.

The first step: being recognised as a stateless person

Although the UN convention mandating the identification and minimum rights of stateless people dates to 1954, UNHCR did not begin keeping figures on the number of stateless people until half a century later, in 2004. It counted some 625,600 stateless persons in just 13 EU countries. Of these, more than 602,700 resided in Latvia and Estonia, although many of them had a different status: they were ‘non-citizens’, mostly from the former Soviet Union, with certain recognised rights, including the right to hold a passport.

The current distribution of identified stateless persons is different: Latvia and Estonia continue to host the majority of stateless people, almost 255,700 of the 381,000 counted by the UNHCR in 2023, but the numbers have fallen. In other countries, however, the number of stateless persons has increased: the number in Sweden has risen from 5,300 in 2005, the first year with available data, to 40,400. In Denmark the number has risen from 446 in 2005 to more than 11,400 in 2023.

But while the 1954 convention mandates countries identify stateless persons to provide them with basic rights, it does not outline mechanisms. “In many countries there is no procedure for determining who is stateless, so it makes it very difficult to identify the people who should have those rights,” Murray says.

Bulgaria, Czechia, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg and Spain, eight of the EU’s 27 member states, have developed concrete procedures for determining statelessness and giving stateless people access to certain basic rights, according to the 2023 EMN report. In practice, however, this procedure often becomes a dead-end labyrinth.

In Italy, there were 3,002 identified stateless persons residing in mid-2023, according to the UNHCR, three times more than 20 years ago. There are two ways to be recognised as stateless: administrative and judicial. The administrative route requires legal residence, and this, Murray says: “is a clear problem for the vast majority of stateless people in the migration context.”

In Spain, there are 8,524 stateless persons per the UNHCR, compared to 14 in 2004, and the vast majority are of Sahrawi origin, according to the Ministry of the Interior’s Asylum in Figures reports. Applicants for stateless status in Spain must apply to the Asylum and Refugee Office (OAR), the Office for Foreigners or a police station within one month of their arrival in the country, explaining the reasons why they do not have a nationality and providing documents that can prove it. “The main difficulty is access to the asylum office, because there are no appointments available, and the second is the time it takes to resolve the cases,” says Sidi Talebbuia, a nationality lawyer of Sahrawi origin at Tax Legem in Madrid, Spain.

The usual timeframe for the Spanish administration to resolve statelessness applications is between one and two years, Talebbuia says. But unlike refugee applicants, they have no access to rights during this waiting period. “There are many people who are in legal limbo,” he says. “Being in this limbo means having to work in the black market, not being able to access social services, for example, not being able to get a health card, depending on the autonomous community where they live; and, although you can stay in the country, if you leave you have no right to re-enter,” Talebbuia adds.

Talebbuia advocates for Spain to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as it recently did with Palestine. According to the Western Sahara Studies Centre at the University of Santiago de Compostela, 47 states currently recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. “The fact that their true nationality is recognised implies access to other rights, such as being able to travel with their own passports and not having to depend on a third state,” Talebbuia says. He has a Sahrawi-issued passport and used it to enter Spain until 2015. “Then Spain stopped recognising Sahrawi passports,” he says.

Fifteen other European countries do not offer specific procedures for recognising statelessness, although there are other, generally more difficult routes. Sweden and Germany are among them yet they are nevertheless the two EU countries with the most recognised stateless persons, behind only Latvia and Estonia.

It is a bureaucratic maze to obtain stateless status in Germany, Murray says. UNHCR puts the number of stateless persons in Germany at around 30,000 and, according to the German Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), half of them come from Syria. In addition, Destatis counts another 97,150 people with undetermined nationality that UNHCR does not include in its figures.“We see people who, for example, apply for asylum and after a while Germany tries to deport them, but they can’t because they don’t know which country to send them to. It is only at the end of this process that they might be recognised as stateless and get some rights,” Murray says.

Abdul Raheem Younis, a stateless person from Syria who has lived in Germany for nine years, says, “When we were in Syria, we used to say that when we managed to get to Germany we would finally have rights, but the reality turned out to be the opposite.” In his case, he has no nationality because he has a stateless father and a Syrian mother, and Syrian law does not allow mothers to pass on their nationality to their children. Younis is not included among the 30,000 stateless persons identified in Germany, nor among the more than 97,000 persons with undetermined nationality. His residence permit lists him as Syrian, but Syria does not provide him with documentation. “The German authorities treat us as if we have Syrian citizenship and demand that we provide all Syrian documents, but stateless persons from Syria have nothing more than a document signed by the local village chief stating our name, surname and address; we have no civil rights in Syria,” Younis says.

Step two: giving stateless people a nationality

The second UN Convention on Statelessness, the 1961 Convention, aims to specify measures to reduce the number of stateless persons by making it easier for them to acquire a nationality. Twenty European states have signed itSpain, the most recent, signed in 2018. However, only 18 countries have simplified access to nationality for these people, according to Globalcit. In some, the difference is significant, such as Ireland, where the government has a discretionary method of granting nationality without the need for stateless people to have lived in the country for a certain period. Belgium lowers the residency requirement from 5 years to 2. In other countries, the difference is minimal, as in Germany, which required six years’ residence instead of eight, but with the reform of the law that comes into force in June, they will have to prove the same five years of residence as do other foreigners. Nine other EU countries, including Spain, Portugal and Romania, do not facilitate nationality for stateless persons in any way.

In 2022, according to the latest Eurostat data, the 27 EU states granted nationality to a total of 7,296 stateless people. Since 2013, the first year for which data is available, there have been just over 67,600, with more than half in Sweden.

Born in the country: stateless persons or citizens

All EU countries except Cyprus and Romania provide nationality to persons born there who would otherwise be stateless. However, the way they naturalise such people varies from country to country, and only twelve of them grant it automatically and without imposing other requirements. These include Spain, France and Italy.

Rosario Porras, a lawyer at In Género, a civil society organisation that provides legal support to sex workers, says, “Sometimes I meet women who are going to give birth and I explain to them that, according to the law of their country, their child would not have nationality, but Spain will recognise them as nationals to prevent statelessnes.”

“This does not mean that they have arrived pregnant to give birth here and have everything sorted out, as some people say. There are formalities to be carried out,” she adds. Specifically, in these cases, in Spain the civil registry opens a file for the declaration of Spanish nationality by presumption, and, after this, the mother may obtain a residence permit for family reunification.

A client of Porras’, Perla, who spoke on condition of anonymity, moved from Paraguay to Spain in 2006 and had legal residence. But Paraguay does not recognise the nationality of its citizens’ children if they are born abroad, so when Perla had a daughter in 2016, she asked to register the baby with Spanish nationality by presumption in the civil registry of Valdepeñas, the city where she lives, to avoid statelessness. Spain required Perla to present a certificate from the Paraguayan administration confirming that the baby was not registered there as Paraguayan. Six months later, Spain confirmed the baby’s nationality. The typical waiting period is now down to just two weeks, Porras says.

Other countries that offer these children automatic nationality on paper do not always follow through in practice. In August 2023, the Belgian Migration Office, an entity under the Belgian Interior Ministry, ordered municipalities to withdraw the nationality of children born there with Palestinian parents on the grounds that people from Palestine were abusing the law for family reunification by naturalising their children. “It was an illegal action, as this body has no competence to do this,” says Murray, who estimates that the decision affected hundreds of families.

Other countries attach conditions to access to nationality for stateless people born in the country. In Germany, for example, they must prove at least five years of legal residence in the country before they can apply, which can be another bureaucratic maze. According to Destatis, in 2022 there were 4,860 stateless persons in Germany who were born there. In Austria, they cannot apply until they are 18 years old and can prove at least ten years of legal residence.

“The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness does not allow for any requirement: if the child is born stateless, that is enough for him or her to be granted nationality,” Murray says. “It is obvious that a child should not live his or her life without a childhood, without the right to a nationality and a legal identity,” she adds.

Original source:

For this report, we relied on the database of nationality laws produced by the Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT), specifically the categories related to access to nationality for stateless persons and persons born in the same country who would otherwise be stateless. For data on stateless persons by country, we used UNHCR figures and, for naturalisations of stateless persons, we used Eurostat figures.

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