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The 1954 United Nations 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.” 

Statelessness occurs either by law or by circumstance. The more than 800,000 Rohingya of Myanmar, for example, are not recognized as eligible for citizenship by the nation’s laws, and thus are stateless by law. Some people can be considered stateless only by certain countries — for example, by some estimates, there are more than 5 million Palestinians who are considered stateless or whose nationality is unclear, since the State Department does not recognize Palestine as a country. 

Gaps in nationality laws are a major cause of statelessness, where some individuals are excluded from the specific circumstances under which people acquire nationality in a particular country. The emergence of new states and borders furthers this type of exclusion. Stateless individuals can also become refugees when they are unable or unwilling to return to their place of habitual residence due to fear of persecution on one of the grounds of the refugee definition. Given that stateless individuals are by definition unable to avail themselves of the diplomatic or legal protections of any country, the 1954 UN Convention, along with the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, was adopted in order to ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms of stateless individuals. 

The conventions require states to confer nationality upon individuals born in their territory who would otherwise be stateless at birth and prohibit states from allowing citizens to renounce their nationality if doing so would render them stateless. Because this last prohibition conflicts with the US legal tradition of voluntary renunciation of citizenship, the United States has not become a signatory of either convention, though it has certain legal protections against statelessness (such as the principle of jus soli, where any child born in US territory is automatically a citizen). However, the United States lacks a consistent legal framework for recognizing stateless persons and addressing their specific political and economic needs, so stateless persons in deportation proceedings are typically treated the same as other non-US citizens, even though they have no country to which they can be deported. 

If a story refers to people who are “stateless,” it can be helpful to give the reader a brief explanation of statelessness and how it applies to individuals.

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Someone is “stateless” if they are not considered to be a citizen of any state. If a story refers to people who are “stateless,” it can be helpful to give the reader a brief explanation of statelessness and how it applies to individuals.