How do you prove that you exist? The daily dilemma of stateless people

BU Intl Human Rights
6 min readDec 24, 2022

Imagine being born in a country and living there your whole life but never being able to prove it. You have no birth certificate, no government issued ID, no passport, and no way to get any of those documents that prove that you exist. This is the struggle that countless stateless people face every day. Stateless persons are “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” They are treated as foreigners by the world.

Although war and armed conflicts contribute to a significant amount of the stateless population, many people who have never crossed an international border are also considered stateless. Statelessness has many causes, including but not limited to political changes in a territory, war and armed conflict, inadequate domestic nationality laws, and lack of birth registration and birth certificates.

(Image description Stack of passports, birth certificates, and social security cards) Image link.

For an individual to be a citizen of a state, they must meet certain residency or birthplace requirements. These requirements are often proved via special documentation, such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. Stateless people often are unable to fully participate in society, engage in activities reserved for citizens, or take advantage of government services because they are unable to access documents that prove citizenship. A byproduct of not having nationality or citizenship in any country of the world is that stateless people frequently lack important documentation required to prove their identities, obtain essential services, and achieve the basic necessities of life. Stateless people are often unable to get a passport, a birth certificate, or even a government issued ID. Without these types of documentation, stateless people are frequently unable to enroll in high school or higher education programs, have medical or dental exams, obtain legal employment, travel domestically and internationally, get married, apply for government benefits, etc.

It is important to address barriers to documentation if countries around the world intend to provide protections and secure rights for stateless people. UNHCR estimates that there are currently at least 10 million stateless people in the world. That means there are millions of people right now who have no guaranteed access to education, housing, employment, and medical treatment primarily because they are unable to acquire documentation that proves their identities.

There need to be more solutions to address the documentation barriers for stateless people. Systems need to be created to help stateless people access documentation that can prove identity regardless of their nationality or citizenship status. Unlike the asylum application process, few countries have adopted adequate legal protections to provide stateless people with the necessary documentation required to work, obtain housing, and get an education.

Morocco is an example of countries that do not provide adequate protections to stateless people. There are currently about 18,934 stateless people in Morocco. Despite that large number, Morocco currently has no domestic laws aimed at protecting the rights of stateless people, or those at risk of becoming stateless. Morocco is not a party to several of the international treaties that give stateless people recognition and rights under international law, including the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Statelessness or 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Thus, unfortunately, Morocco is not legally bound by arguably the two most important international agreements regarding providing stateless people basic rights to improve their status in the world.

Gender discrimination in Morocco’s nationality laws has been a serious cause of statelessness in the country. For most of the nation’s history, only men were able to pass their nationality to their children. In 2007, Morocco made minute changes to its domestic law to allow women to confer nationality to their children. This a big step in the right direction; however, there are still large gaps in domestic law that leave people at risk of statelessness simply because they are not able to obtain the proper documents.

The biggest barrier to obtaining documents for people born in Morocco occurs right after birth. Many people with irregular immigration or citizenship statuses often struggle to produce the required documentation like birth certificates or passports, and as a result are unable to register their children. Without birth registration and the birth registration documents a child is not considered a citizen or a national of Morocco. Despite this being a systemic problem that perpetuates inter-generational statelessness, Morocco has no current legislation to address the problems that lead to children born in Morocco being unable to obtain birth registration documents and as a result other state recognized forms of documentation issue.

Having processes domestically and internationally that would allow stateless people to access state recognized forms of documentation would be a huge step forward in bettering the lives of stateless people not just in Morocco but all around the world. Processes that allow stateless people to more easily obtain documentation would make it easier for children born in Morocco to properly have their births registered. This would address the inter-generational statelessness problem that Morocco’s laws currently perpetuate. Coming up with solutions to this documentation problem isn’t impossible. Russia and Madagascar are two countries working towards providing stateless people access to these life changing forms of documentation.

(Image description: Picture of a stateless man standing on a crowded street in France) Image link.

Russia recently passed an amendment that would provide temporary identity documents to stateless people that would allow them to legally live and work in Russia. The amendment also requires authorities in Russia to identify stateless persons and issue identification quicker than through their previous system.

In early November 2022, Madagascar adopted a national digital ID system based on an open-source platform that affords countries flexibility to build their own foundational digital ID systems in a cost-effective manner. The program is currently still in its pilot phase in Madagascar, with only 1,000 individuals eligible to participate in the program. According to MOSIP, the organization responsible for the open-source platform, the digital ID system is meant to create a basic ID that would facilitate stateless people in accessing public and private services. If stateless people in Morocco had access to this sort of national ID system, there would likely be much less of an obstacle for parents to provide their own documentation in order to register their child’s birth. This would mean a reduction in the number of stateless children as a result of the Moroccan birth registration process.

In the face of ongoing armed conflict in different parts of the world and the increasing number of stateless people as a result, more countries should be working towards permanent and even temporary solutions for stateless people to acquire important documentation. For countries like Morocco, that includes becoming parties to the international treaties that oblige states to help stateless people through changes to their domestic laws. Ratifying the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Statelessness and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness would create legal obligations that would require Morocco to modify its laws to provide essential protections for stateless persons. Morocco is more likely to develop procedures and laws to protect the rights of stateless people within its borders if its compliance is subject to international monitoring. With or without ratification of the treaties on statelessness, Morocco urgently needs to develop a system that allows stateless people to acquire documentation that regularizes their immigration status and allows them to work, obtain housing, and pursue an education.

--

--

BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.