Stateless: No country to call your own

Exploring statelessness, its effects and who’s most affected — focusing on Tibetans and Roma
One of Tsering’s identity certificates given by the Indian government. This certificate provided Tsering with legal recognition and gave him the right to live and attend school as a Tibetan refugee in India. PHOTO: Taylor Holmes

Tashi Tsering grew up in the small hill station of Mussoorie in the foothills of India’s Himalayas. Tsering reminisces about stealing potatoes from the school kitchen with his friends before running off to the mountains to roast their stolen snacks and play for hours. 

In many ways, Tsering’s childhood was like any other kid living in the country, full of shenanigans and the outdoors, but adults around him would frequently remind him and his friends that they were not.

“Even as a child growing up, I often heard our teachers and elders say, ‘Remember, you have a big R, refugee, written on your forehead. So don’t think you are a hero, or that you are the same,’” Tsering says. 

Tsering was born in India, but has never been an Indian citizen, he and his family were stateless. The leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee in 1959 following the invasion of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. Around this time thousands of Tibetans, including Tsering’s parents, followed the Dalai Lama to India to escape persecution. In India they were provided protection, but were not recognized as citizens.

 Tsering family image (c. 1983) with Tsering as a young boy and the family in traditional Tibetan dress. Tsering is in the front left. Photo: Courtesy of Tashi Tsering
Statelessness — a complex global problem

It’s hard to imagine not having a country to call your own, a nationality, but for the more than 12-million stateless people in the world, it’s a reality. Statelessness, as defined by the United Nations, occurs when someone “is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Stateless people are not guaranteed rights, limiting or completely excluding their access to all government support, and work. 

Despite affecting millions, statelessness is an often overlooked human rights issue — largely because the very nature of statelessness means its victims are often invisible compared to those with citizenship.

Being stateless means that no nation recognizes the individual as a citizen, which means the person has no legal protection. It also means that technically, that person’s existence in any nation is illegal, as there is no documentation. You’re an illegal alien of planet Earth.

The very nature of statelessness makes it hard to quantify and measure, an issue that is compounded when politics, racism, and identity play a role. Information is hard to collect when stateless people are essentially invisible legally, and people may misrepresent themselves when surveyed out of fear of persecution or discrimination. These factors make it hard to collect data on the subject.

Statelessness affects every aspect of a person’s life. Without sufficient government identification, stateless people struggle to access even the most basic necessities. Stateless people are unable to obtain legal forms of employment, children are unable to attend school, and people live in fear of accidents or illnesses because they are unable to afford hospital bills. 

Jonathan Lee works for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an organization that helps litigate cases of discrimination against Roma people in Europe. The Roma or Romani (commonly referred to as gypsies, which is considered pejorative) are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, and have faced racism and discrimination for centuries. The Roma are also one of Europe’s most at risk of statelessness.

“There was a [Roma] guy where he described that he had four children, who had all died within 40 days of birth because they can’t afford to go to hospital. There’s a real fear actually that their kids will get sick or have some emergency,” Lee explains.

Finding somewhere to live is another challenge stateless people around the world face. While living in India, Tsering and his family could not purchase property, and rentals were limited to the most densely populated part of old Delhi and those who were willing to rent to foreigners with minimal documentation.

Thankfully for Tsering and other Tibetans in India, the Indian government recognizes Tibetans as an exiled group, and grants them some rights. Because of this Tsering was also able to attend a Tibetan refugee school, a right many stateless people are denied. Others are forced to live in illegal settlements because they are not able to find anywhere to live legally. 

To better understand the issue, it’s worth clarifying a few terms: undocumented, stateless, and at risk of being stateless. 

Undocumented means an individual does not possess the appropriate immigration documentation to live in a region, meaning they are undocumented to the state they are living in, but may have recognition as a citizen in a nation. 

To be stateless is to have no recognition as a citizen in any nation. To be at risk of being stateless means that an individual may not be able to prove their ties to a nation, or may not have enough proof of their citizenship.

“Some will have a birth certificate but nothing else,” says Lee. “Some will have a driver’s license. Some will have their parents’ birth certificate, but they have no documents [of their own] and some will have absolutely nothing at all, who are obviously the most vulnerable.” 

Tsering was given an identity certificate, which allowed him to travel internationally, and while it granted him greater freedoms and mobility, it holds nowhere near the power of a passport. A simple border crossing became an extended interrogation because of Tsering’s status as a stateless person. 

Statelessness is a complex, global problem, and there are a number of causes contributing to it.

Nations with known stateless or at risk populations. Data compiled from several sources including the UNHCR, Reuters, BBC, European Network on Statelessness and World Statelessness. All values are estimates. INFOGRAPHIC: Taylor Holmes. 
Changing Borders

One contributor to statelessness is shifting national borders. Dissolution, collapse and annexation of nations and regions can lead to lost or destroyed government records and people getting left behind or deliberately excluded from citizenship.

Tsering’s statelessness was caused by the annexation of Tibet by China. While there still is a Tibetan Government in exile, there is no internationally recognized Tibetan citizenship, therefore exiled Tibetans must try to register as a stateless person or seek citizenship through another nation.

In Europe, the dissolution of nations has been particularly damaging to people in Balkan and former Soviet states. In some cases statelessness in these nations has been somewhat accidental. As nations fell, national records were lost, along with those people’s citizenships. In other cases, certain groups were deliberately excluded from being given citizenship.

“I spoke to a Romani woman in Uzhorod, Zakarpattia [Ukraine] once who… lives in the same village that she was born in and had lived in four different countries because of the changing borders and nation states in that region,” explains Lee.


Another contributor to statelessness are the rules some nations have surrounding inheriting citizenship. There are two primary ways of obtaining citizenship at birth: jus soli and jus sanguinis. Jus soli means birthright citizenship, if someone was born in that country, they receive citizenship. Most of North and South America, including Canada, along with a few other nations have this. This is the reason the Americas have some of the lowest stateless populations on the planet — children are granted citizenship in the country where they were born (for the most part), even if neither parents are citizens.

Jus sanguinis is citizenship granted on the basis of inheritance. Essentially, one or both parents must be a citizen of the nation in order for the child to receive citizenship. How citizenship is transferred is crucial to preventing people from slipping through the legal cracks and becoming stateless.

Additionally, not all people are equal within the world’s citizenship laws. There are presently 27 nations that do not allow women to pass on their nationality. This is a key issue primarily in Africa and the Middle East. If the father isn’t a citizen, their citizenship can’t be proven, or there isn’t a father in the picture, the child will end up stateless – even if the mother is and can prove citizenship.

Furthermore, many nations limit citizenship to members of certain ethnic and racial groups. 

INFOGRAPHIC: Taylor Holmes
Role of Discrimination and Racism

Racism and other forms of discrimination also play a pivotal role in statelessness. It  disproportionately affects minorities, including the Roma, Kurds, Tibetans, and Rohingya, among others. In fact, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 75 per cent of stateless people belong to minority groups.

Romani have faced discrimination in Europe for centuries, and this anti-gypsyism persists to this day. The Romani are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group originally from Northern India, but they have lived in Europe since the ninth century. 

Roma people have been the targets of ostracisation, expulsion, enslavement and assimilation since the Middle Ages in Europe. During the Second World War, the Nazis sought the complete extermination of two groups: the Jews and the Roma, killing nearly 25 per cent of Europe’s pre-war Roma population. 

Persecution didn’t end after the Second World War, as the Roma had to fight to have their genocide at the hands of the Nazis, the Porajmos, recognized as such even after the Holocaust was well-recognized as a genocide of Jewish people. 

Forced sterilizations of Roma women which were originally introduced by Nazi scientists in Germany in the 1930s, persisted in parts of Eastern Europe until the 1980s. Even today Roma children still face segregation in schools and inferior education than their non-Roma in parts of Eastern and Central Europe.

Racism and stereotypes of Roma as dangerous, dirty, deceitful or as beggars and criminals are still commonly held beliefs in Europe that actively influence policy and actions of those in government at all levels. 

“War or the aftermath of war is really only a small part of it [Roma statelessness]. The leading cause and continuing cause for statelessness is anti-gypsyism and institutional racism,” Lee explains.

According to Lee, the issue of institutional racism is found at all levels.

This discrimination against Romani people leads to births not getting registered, or Romani people getting refused at registrars. Additionally, jus sanguinis is the most common form citizenship is granted in Europe, meaning that a child born to stateless parents inherits their statelessness rather than being granted citizenship to the nation they were born in. 

Furthering the issue are harmful myths asserting that Roma people choose to or would rather be stateless than register and operate within a nation. These myths are perpetuated by politicians and officials in government.

“The most common response you would get from public officials at the local level was that they [Roma] don’t want to integrate, they never bothered to register their children at birth, they don’t want to because they have their own kind of parallel society… which is just painfully not true,” Lee says. “Every day they’re reminded of how they don’t have access to these things because of their lack of ID.”


There are many roadblocks that hinder stateless people from gaining citizenship. Applying to be registered as a stateless person is a complicated process, and while it is a possibility on paper, it’s not nearly so easy in actuality.

“It’s a path basically without legal advice, you’re very unlikely to be able to navigate,” Lee says. 

Statelessness is often political by nature, which hampers attempts to resolve statelessness, both on the individual and national level.

Tsering speaking on Universal Jurisdiction at the Congress on Universal Jurisdiction in Buenos Aires, Argentina. PHOTO: Baltsasar Garzon, Fundacion Internacional 2015

In 2002, Tsering wished to take part in the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa as a representative of a U.S. based Tibetan rights group, the Tibet Justice Center, to express his perspective on economic and environmental development. 

Tsering had his identity certificate from the Indian government, was a published graduate researcher, and was representing a U.S. based organization, but even this would not be enough. 

Tsering’s right to participate in the conference would become the subject of a United Nations vote, and the final vote was to reject their application. This rejection spoke to Tsering beyond his circumstances as an individual.

“I felt like crawling under a rock,” says Tsering. “Our credentials were beyond reproach… I felt really bad because I realized if we can’t get in, no other Tibetan group can.” 

Thanks to the solidarity of some others attending the event, Tsering was able to receive a special invitation to attend, but were it not for compassionate individuals, Tsering would not have had the opportunity. 

Ending Statelessness

While statelessness is a complex, global issue with no single solution for all those affected, there are people and organizations working to end the problem.

Presently the ERRC addresses statelessness by legally pursuing governments and officials who have wrongfully denied citizenship to those who should receive it. They have also launched a paralegal program which aims to train Roma in their communities on how to help others overcome legal challenges to obtain documentation. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the Roma people and different organizations, Lee emphasizes that the challenge shouldn’t be the responsibility of stateless people.

“The responsibility for addressing statelessness should not be Roma themselves, it shouldn’t be human rights NGOs, it should be government officials. The first step towards that is to make laws or change laws that deny Roma access to identity documents… Without that everything else becomes kind of immaterial.”

The European Network on Statelessness lists a number of steps nations can take to combat statelessness. These include: 

  • Ensure universal birth registration for all children at birth regardless of the status or identity of parents (adopting jus soli).
  • Implement laws that allow for children to gain the nationality of the country in which they were born if they would otherwise be stateless.
  • Eliminate discriminatory laws and practices that perpetuate the risk of statelessness and build the capacity of officials and other actors to identify and combat antigypsyism and other forms of discrimination.

Another possibility for recourse that Tsering is passionate about is universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction is the legal principle that allows national and international courts to claim jurisdiction over accused individuals, irrespective of where the alleged crime was committed and who the accused and the accuser are. Tibetan refugees have used this principle to prosecute Chinese leaders for their actions.

According to Tsering, statelessness is often directly produced by states such as through wars and discriminatory policies against minority groups. Currently, the world lacks legal mechanisms to hold states and other powerful actors accountable for their actions because of jurisdiction laws. 

Universal jurisdiction could make it possible for people to pursue governments and officials for laws that contribute statelessness. In 2015, Tsering also introduced two environmental crimes of universal jurisdiction listed in the Madrid-Buenos Aires Principles of Universal Jurisdiction.

There is a long way to go to resolving statelessness worldwide, and the solutions are complex and will take time, but there are people and organizations fighting for those who aren’t recognized by any nation. 

When adults told Tsering as a child that he had an R on his forehead, which stood for refugee, it was a reminder that he carried a special responsibility to fight for freedom and justice in Tibet. Tsering hopes for the conditions in Tibet to change, and that one day His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be able to visit his homeland in Tibet. 

Tsering was able to receive Canadian citizenship, but he has family who are still stateless. Now, he works as a university professor and continues to advocate for universal jurisdiction and the Tibetan people.