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Ending Child Statelessness
ONC Editorial

Dec 07, 2023

Every child has the right to a nationality under international law. This four-point plan seeks to address some of the plights of stateless children. (The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, Karabo Poloko.)

Big Picture

Statelessness, the condition of not belonging to any legally recognized nationality, is a badge of vulnerability, a mark of reduced rights and impoverished privileges. Now couple that with the inherent vulnerability of being a child America must provide legal reform by enacting laws and regulations to eliminate child vulnerability, establishing a legal obligation for the state to meet fundamental rights and protect stateless children from exploitation and abuse.

Operative Definitions

  1. Stateless person: A person who is not considered a national by any state under the operations of the law.

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. At the end of 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted 4.2 million stateless persons worldwide. However, it is estimated that the actual number is estimated to be over 10 million due to underreporting.
  2. Pinpointing the number of stateless persons in the United States has been difficult, given insufficient data.
  3. The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) has estimated the potential number of stateless persons in New York to be between 192,000 and 204,000. The estimate may have omitted groups — for example, children born in refugee camps in countries without birthright citizenship — and as a consequence, there is ample room for inaccuracies. 

Four-Point Plan

(1) Allow stateless children to gain the nationality of the country they were born in to prevent statelessness. The United States would not be required to grant nationality to all children born in the territory, but only to those who cannot acquire any other nationality. 

(2) Steps should be taken to ascertain whether a child born in the territory whose nationality is unclear has acquired the nationality of another State. If not, the United States is required to grant the child nationality so that they are not left stateless.

(3) Ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness. Many stateless persons are undocumented and therefore do not appear in any statistics. This can be fixed by facilitating access to procedures at the community level, deploying mobile teams to address existing deficits and integrating birth registration. 

(4) Improve quantitative and qualitative data on stateless populations. Undertake targeted surveys and studies, which include participatory assessments with stateless individuals and groups, to establish the magnitude of statelessness in States and regions with known stateless populations.

(5) Establish an independent regulatory body. To ensure compliance with the policy, provide statelessness determinations and systematically collect data. We must also ensure that effective policy regulation is in the best interest of all stateless children.

Why this initiative is Important

In October 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called for the “total commitment of the international community to end statelessness 2014- 2021.” One of the initiatives was to ensure that no child is born stateless.

Every child has the right to a nationality under international law. The protection is mirrored in a slew of other international and regional treaties. Human rights organizations and UN institutions have emphasized that protecting children from statelessness is in their best interests. One risk that creates issues such as exploitation and abuse is a lack of birth registration and documentation certifying birth, as individuals cannot prove a link to any state. Because they lack legal protection, stateless children face a lifetime of discrimination against fundamental human rights.

It is critical to eliminate childhood statelessness, so that no child grows up experiencing hardships. Stateless children must also exercise their fundamental rights to help integration and social cohesion. Furthermore, it provides these children with a legal identity. Stateless children can pursue dreams and contribute to society once their legal status is established.


The following student worked on this proposal: Karabo Poloko, LLB graduate of the University of Botswana. 


“Global Action Plan to End Statelessness” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 4 Nov 2014,

Kerwin, D., Alulema, D., Nicholson, M., & Warren, R. “Statelessness in the United States: A Study to Estimate and Profile the US Stateless Population,” Journal on Migration and Human Security, 2 June 2020,

Harbitz, M., Gregson, K.,“Toward Universal Birth Registration: A Systemic Approach to the Application of ICT” 20 Aug 2015,

“Regulatory Policy and Governance: Supporting Economic Growth and Serving the Public Interest, OECD Publishing” Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 25 Oct 2011,

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