Stateless woman’s desperate battle for citizenship: Stateless mother of four, Mpho hides her tears after describing her daily ordeals in her shack in Brits, North West Province, South Africa. © UNHCR/ Hélène Caux 2020

Stateless woman’s desperate battle for citizenship: Stateless mother of four, Mpho hides her tears after describing her daily ordeals in her shack in Brits, North West Province, South Africa. © UNHCR/ Hélène Caux 2020


Mpho, 33, has lived in South Africa her entire life, yet she is stateless; she has no nationality. When she was found abandoned as a young child, the identity of her parents and her place of birth were unknown. In South Africa, as in most countries in the region, these are key pieces of information to prove one’s ties to a country, and exercise the right to citizenship.  South Africa’s nationality laws do not ensure the right of foundlings to a nationality, leaving them stateless.

Like Mpho, Aisha, 50, has also been stateless her whole life. She is Karana, a minority group which has been present in the country for more than a century and traces its origins to pre-partitioned India, a country that no longer exists.  Madagascar’s laws restrict access to nationality based on ethnicity, and don’t recognize the Karana, leaving Aisha and her parents stateless.

For Mpho and Aisha, statelessness did not end with them: Mpho had three children, Aisha had four, and their children have inherited their status.   Tragically, families endure generations of statelessness despite having deep-rooted and longstanding ties to their communities and countries.

Aisha, Mpho and their families are among thousands of people in Southern Africa who fall through the cracks of nationality legislation that makes no provisions for them.  Gaps in the laws of the countries they were born in, or where their parents hold citizenship are numerous, and often these nationality laws are informed by gender and ethnic discrimination, as well as lack of safeguards against statelessness at birth.

Sixty years ago, the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness was adopted to offer concrete solutions to put an end to the injustice of statelessness.  As we commemorate its 60th anniversary, it is as relevant today as before and remains an essential piece of human rights law to end statelessness globally.

The 1961 Convention is about preventing statelessness from occurring in the first place, and thereby reducing it over time. It sets out clear commitments by states to grant nationality to children so that they do not become stateless at birth. It also prevents statelessness later in the course of life, for example by strictly framing the conditions where nationality can be withdrawn.

Applied to the situations of these real-life stories, the Convention provides for the right of foundlings to acquire the nationality of the country where they are found, a provision that would have saved Mpho from statelessness.  The 1961 Convention also prescribes against discrimination in the transmission or acquisition of nationality, a safeguard that would have protected Aisha. The convention provides that every child should acquire the nationality of the country where they are born, if they would otherwise be stateless. This safeguard would have guaranteed Aisha’s and Mpho’s children the right to a nationality.

States are the sole authorities responsible for granting nationality, and to that effect their parliaments adopt laws governing the attribution of nationality. Therefore, responsibility for resolving situations of statelessness also rests with states. If their nationality rules are fair and inclusive, statelessness will not occur.

Statelessness is a man-made and cruel injustice, “a form of punishment more primitive than torture” according to late US Supreme Court Judge Warren Earl. Aisha and Mpho, like other stateless people, officially belong nowhere, having no legal identity.  Therefore, they are deprived of countless rights and opportunities that many of us may take for granted.  Statelessness often means a life without education, without medical care or legal employment, or the ability to register the birth of a child; in short, a life without rights. It also means a life of exclusion, without prospects or hope.

We do not know precisely how many people are stateless in the Southern Africa region because data is poor, and most states have not assessed their stateless populations. However, a World Bank report estimates that more than 130-million people are without any identity and nationality documentation in Southern Africa, a telling indicator of the extent to which statelessness is a topical phenomenon in the region.

Ending statelessness is within reach, where governments are willing. If states accede to the Convention and incorporate its safeguards into national laws and practices, the necessary legal safeguards against statelessness will be in place, and over time, will help to end statelessness on their territory.

Ending statelessness is not only about ensuring the rights of stateless people. I believe it is in the self-interest of countries to ensure that everyone living in their country is a citizen, or can acquire a nationality from the country they originated from. Ending statelessness contributes to economic and social development, by allowing the full participation of formerly stateless people in all aspects of society and civic life.  It also strengthens the broader respect for the rule of law in all societies. By acceding to the statelessness conventions, states demonstrate their commitment to human rights and respect for the dignity of all individuals.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the UN General Assembly to address statelessness worldwide. As part of this mandate, we advocate for accession to the statelessness conventions, and advise states on the implementation thereof.  In 2014, we launched the #Ibelong campaign that calls upon states to take concrete actions to end statelessness by 2024, including by acceding to the 1961 Convention. In that regard, there have been positive developments in Southern Africa.

Today only four states out of 16 in the region have acceded to the 1961 Convention: Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambique. But many states have committed to acceding to the convention: Comoros, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the meantime, a few countries, in particular Madagascar, have started reforming their nationality laws with a view to removing discrimination and including safeguards against statelessness.

Statelessness is inhuman and I believe it is time to end this injustice. It is time for States to accede to and implement the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It is time for Aisha, Mpho and thousands of other stateless people to finally be able to say “I belong”.


— Valentin Tapsoba is UNHCR Director for Southern Africa