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Undocumented Children and Statelessness

What does being ‘undocumented’ mean?

An undocumented person is unable to provide the documents necessary to prove that they are a citizen of a country. Even if a person is a fully eligible for citizenship of a state, they will be unable to access the benefits of being a citizen (such as the right to legally marry, or to own property), if they cannot provide the documents required to back up their claim to citizenship.[1] An undocumented person might find themselves at a high risk of statelessness if they lack the documentation to prove their nationality.

Since undocumented people cannot prove that they belong to any country, they cannot count on a government to protect them and meet their needs. The difficult situation they are in is intensified when it comes to undocumented children. Undocumented children do not legally exist, and are an extremely vulnerable population, defenseless against all sorts of exploitation and rights violations. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible, because they only exist under the radar.

What is statelessness? How can being undocumented lead to being stateless?

The term ‘stateless person’ refers to “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.[3] The right to have a nationality is a basic human right identified by the United Nations. However, many people are denied this right – there are an estimated 12 million stateless people in the world today and 5 million are children.[4] Being denied citizenship of a state is often equivalent to being denied the ‘right to have rights’. Stateless people exist in a legislative gray area, where, paradoxically, they legally have no legal identity.[5]

When undocumented children cannot produce the documents to confirm that there is a link between them and a state, they are left at risk of not belonging to any state at all, and becoming stateless. Since they cannot prove where they were born or who they were born to due to their lack of documentation, they run the risk of not being recognized and provided for by any state, and thus becoming stateless. Some undocumented people may be considered ‘de facto’ stateless, as they would lack an effective, functional nationality with which to access the privileges of citizenship, even though they are legally entitled to one.

[1] E. Simperingham, “The International Protection of Stateless Individuals: A Call for Change” (LLB (Hons) diss., University of Auckland, 2003), (accessed February 20th, 2013).

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” (Article #7), November 28, 1989, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (accessed January 14, 2013).

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons,” (Article #1.1), September 28, 1954, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (accessed February 13th, 2013).

[4] Open Society Foundations, “Stateless Children: Denied the Right to Have Rights,” Open Society Foundations, (accessed February 27, 2013).

[5] Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO), “Summary Report of the Forty-Fifth Golden Jubilee Headquarters Session of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization,” (Article #6.23), Report of AALCO’s Forty-Fifth Session, 8 April 2006, AALCO, [], Accessed 08 January 2013, 151-185.


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