Improving official statistics on stateless people: Challenges, solutions, and the road ahead

Marya Strode and Melanie Khanna

Statistical Journal of the IAOS, Volume 37, Issue 4 (2021), Pages 1087-1101

This summary is part of a series of summaries of articles on statelessness. The quantitative literature on stateless population is very limited. We include these summaries in our Literature Review Updates and Database to highlight research on statelessness and the need to collect more data to facilitate analytical studies on the related issues.


This article discusses the statistical challenges associated with improving data on statelessness and proposes a path towards the adoption of the International Recommendations on Statelessness Statistics (IROSS) in 2023.[1] Work on the IROSS was included under the umbrella of the Expert Group on Refugee and IDP Statistics (EGRIS) in November 2020.

Article 1 of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. Most stateless people lack access to basic socio-economic rights enjoyed by citizens (e.g., education, healthcare, the right to work, the right to own property) as well as to civil and political rights such as the right to vote. The stateless are often trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty and vulnerability. When statelessness affects entire ethnic or religious groups within a society, it can contribute to instability, conflict, and displacement.

UN Statelessness Conventions establish international standards to protect stateless people and to prevent and reduce statelessness. In most cases, statelessness is caused by nationality laws that are inconsistent with international standards, such as: laws that discriminate against certain ethnic or religious groups, preventing them from acquiring or conferring nationality; laws that limit a woman’s ability to pass her nationality to her children; and laws that provide for loss or deprivation of nationality without safeguards against statelessness. State succession can also cause statelessness if an individual’s previous State of nationality ceases to exist, or if the territory on which they live comes under the control of another State and they are not entitled to citizenship under the new citizenship law. Weak birth registration systems can also put people at risk of statelessness. While some stateless people lack citizenship because of displacement, many are stateless due to historical migration, often forced, of their parents, grandparents or earlier generations.

Main messages:

  • There are no robust estimates of the global number of stateless people. UNHCR’s estimate of 4.2 million stateless people is based on data from 94 countries, most of which do not meet standards for official statistics. Additionally, many countries known to have substantial numbers of stateless people that do not report their statelessness situation to UNHCR.
  • There are three categories of stateless people defined for the purposes of official statistics. These include: (1) ‘Stateless persons’ who do not have citizenship of any country, and may be classified as stateless either through self-declaration, or through recognition by competent government authorities, on an individual or group basis; (2) ‘Persons of Undetermined Nationality’ who lack proof of citizenship but who may be entitled to nationality, and if so, could be assisted to obtain proof of citizenship by the relevant authorities; and (3) “Stateless-related people” impacted by statelessness, including formerly stateless people, children of at least one stateless parent, or people living in a household with a stateless members. The framework for the IROSS also distinguishes between people who are native-born and those who are not.
  • There are several challenges associated with collecting data about stateless people. These include: (a) reluctance of stateless people to make themselves known to authorities; (b) individuals may be unaware of their own status as a stateless person and so may not self-identify in surveys and censuses; (c) potential adverse effects on survey response rates when collecting data on citizenship; (d) national laws and bureaucratic obstacles that prevent those without proof of nationality, or with foreign documentation from appearing on population registers, or from registering their children’s births and other vital events; (e) attempts to include the stateless in the of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) may present risks to stateless people unless they are protected from immigration enforcement; and (f) data collection may lead to large estimates of those potentially at risk of statelessness due to broader definitions of statelessness being applied. Notwithstanding these problems, there is broad recognition that finding ways to collect better data has significant potential benefits for stateless people and for the prevention and reduction of statelessness.
  • There are several potential sources of data on stateless people, including administrative data, household surveys, population and housing censuses and modelled data, including data linking techniques. Population registers and administrative data can help to identify stateless people and those with undetermined nationality if data contain accurate information about citizenship, birthplace, ethnicity, and parentage. Data collected through household surveys under national statistics laws may offer more data protection to the individuals identified, however respondents must be knowledgeable and willing to report their status accurately, surveys require a sample of sufficient size for analytical purposes, and such specialist surveys are expensive. The population and housing census is a useful source of data for estimating statelessness; questions which ask directly about citizenship and statelessness can be combined with other variables which might be used as statelessness proxies to correct for under-reporting. Censuses are particularly useful for modelling and data linkage techniques where additional characteristics are collected that are relevant to the characteristics of stateless people in the national context.

The authors conclude that the IROSS, when adopted, will help to contribute to the production of better quality, harmonized, and comparable statistics. However, there also needs to be a significant increase in the number of countries producing statistics on their stateless populations. Moreover, the improvement in birth registration and vital statistics is needed to help prevent future statelessness and facilitate better data on those already at risk of statelessness.

[1] More information on IROSS can be found here.