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Discrimination in Nationality Laws Harms Families


Two-year-old Arfaisal Marsaleh, a stateless child, holds on to his mother in a slum village in Kinarut, in Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo island (file photo).

U.S. is “committed to addressing the global problem of statelessness as part of our commitment to champion human rights and dignity.”

Around the world, some 12 million people are stateless. They are not recognized as citizens by any government and have no protection, no rights.


Too frequently, this situation results from gender discrimination in nationality laws, which prevent women from acquiring, changing, retaining or passing on their nationality to their children. Thus, if a woman has legal standing but her husband is stateless, or if she is a foreigner and the husband had died before he could register his children, the children are stateless from birth.

These families face severe consequences. Stateless people often lack access to official documentation, formal employment, public healthcare and education. They usually cannot own or rent property and stateless children are often barred from school. These discriminatory nationality laws perpetuate statelessness for generations.

Speaking at a recent panel discussion, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Kelly Clements, said that the United States is “committed to addressing the global problem of statelessness as part of our commitment to champion human rights and dignity.”

Nearly two years ago, the United States launched the Women’s Nationality Initiative, which seeks to address this type of discrimination against women. As part of the Initiative, the United States introduced a resolution on the right to a nationality with a focus on women and children at the 20th session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. The Resolution garnered 49 co-sponsors and was adopted by consensus.

It was an important step, but the effort is on-going. Nearly 30 countries, most of them in Africa and the Middle East, maintain gender-discriminatory nationality laws.

“At this time, we are particularly concerned about potential statelessness as a result of the conflict in Syria,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary Clements. “We are mindful that gender discrimination in some host country nationality laws could prevent the registration of children as Syrian nationals, and that preexisting statelessness among thousands of Syrian Kurds may exacerbate the already dire situation facing some Syrian refugee families throughout the region,” she said.

“For its part, the United States will continue to champion equal nationality rights for women, and we will continue to use our diplomacy and humanitarian assistance to support solutions to statelessness in all its forms.”
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