“The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right and in this time of crisis it can mean the difference between life or death.”

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, May 2020


  • The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and worsened existing inequalities and problems that stateless people face on a daily basis.
  • The pandemic showed us the narrow approach that states take in responding to crisis, protecting their citizens first.
  • COVID-19 impacted on stateless people’s access to documentation and legal status, health, socioeconomic rights, civil and political rights, as well as exacerbating discrimination and increasing the risk of new cases of statelessness.
  • Drawing on learnings from the ground, a consortium of organisations working with stateless communities to respond to COVID-19 developed a practical three stage Roadmap for future efforts to address structural discrimination and statelessness.


The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities experienced by stateless people around the world. In times of crisis, states tend to turn inwards, adopting policy responses that put their citizens first. Citizens were first to be targeted for public information messages; first to access healthcare services and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); first to benefit from emergency relief and economic support packages; and first to be offered vaccines. As states placed their own constituents at the centre, non-citizens were left on the side-lines. 

For stateless people, who already face long-standing structural discrimination, this brought heightened hardship. Existing rights deprivations were further exacerbated due to the pandemic and the policy responses adopted by states. The impact on the rights and wellbeing of stateless people can be broadly grouped into five categories. These challenges are interrelated and mutually reinforcing, heightening the cost of statelessness, generating new risks of statelessness and stifling efforts to promote the right to nationality and the rights of stateless people.

The Right to Health

Stateless people are generally excluded from healthcare plans, subsidies, insurance schemes and free healthcare that citizens are entitled to. This was particularly problematic during the pandemic, because it affected access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Anxiety about the threat of arrest, detention or harassment by police or officials has also cultivated a culture of fear around accessing healthcare. Many communities of stateless people and those whose nationality is at risk live in densely populated camps and settlements, including the Urdu speaking community in Bangladesh, Nubians in Kenya and Roma communities in the Western Balkans. The inability to carry out effective preventative measures including social distancing and wearing PPE, as well as lack of access to sanitation and hygiene products and facilities due to living and working conditions, placed stateless communities at great risk. When the vaccine became available, many states applied a ‘citizens first’ approach to vaccine distribution. In some places, stateless communities were directly excluded, and in other countries like India it was mandatory to show documentation to receive the vaccine – putting it out of reach of populations affected by statelessness. Further barriers included lack of awareness surrounding the vaccine or technical barriers to access, such as the requirement to register on a vaccination portal to receive an appointment, which was not possible without an ID card.

Socio-economic Rights

Lockdowns, curfews and other policy responses adopted by states had a significant impact on employment and income, and consequently loss of livelihoods. The inability to access formal employment was a significant factor in loss of income, as stateless people are forced to work in the informal sector, which was brought to a standstill by lockdowns. Social welfare schemes and economic relief measures were not accessible to many stateless people due to their status or lack of documentation. Stateless people were also excluded from humanitarian relief or food distribution efforts in some countries. Education during lockdowns was also affected, and stateless people often couldn’t access online classes due to lack of access to equipment and internet.

Civil and Political Rights

Civil and political rights include the right to freedom of movement, liberty and security, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Most states imposed COVID-19 restrictions, including lockdowns, curfews and travel bans, which limited the enjoyment of these rights. Measures such as border closures, movement restrictions and detention had a disproportionate effect on stateless people. In many cases, borders remained open only for citizens; with mobility restrictions having an evidently differential impact on different categories of non-citizens. Risk of arrest and fear of harassment by officials also impacted stateless populations in many countries. For those in detention during the pandemic, there was an increased risk of infection due to the inability to adequately social distance or self-isolate. For Rohingya refugees, COVID-19 meant limited access to UNHCR or asylum procedures on arrival in their host county, heightening risk of arrest and arbitrary detention; as well as increased incidences of boats of Rohingya being pushed back out to sea, with governments such as Malaysia and Thailand using COVID-19 as an excuse to deny entry and protection.

The Right to Nationality, Documentation and Legal Status

Disruptions to crucial civil registration procedures during the pandemic, such as birth and marriage registration, resulted in delays and backlogs leaving stateless people and those whose nationality is at risk in limbo. Such documentation and registration challenges also subject people to longer-term risks of statelessness: unregistered births and subsequent non-issuance of IDs can heighten the risk of statelessness, particularly among minority and border communities and those with migrant heritage. There were also disruptions to other procedures, such as asylum and statelessness determination procedures, diminishing stateless people’s chances of being registered and receiving documentation, and correspondingly heightening the risk or arrest and detention. A number of countries also had disruptions to permanent residence applications, visa processes and other consular services, impacting stateless migrants and families affected by gender discriminatory nationality laws.

Equality and Non-Discrimination

For many communities, statelessness arises from a long history of exclusion, marginalisation and targeting, whereby states use nationality as a tool to exclude those perceived as ‘other’. In certain cases, COVID-19 was weaponised and used to further target minority groups. There was a rise in xenophobia, racism, hate speech and intolerance against minorities, refugees, migrants and stateless people. They were vilified in populist political narratives and used as scapegoats for the spread of infection, including to distract from the failings of political leaders. Increased cases of gender-based violence were also reported, including in Eswatini and Nepal, where in the context of gender discriminatory nationality laws, women are unable to extract themselves from unsafe situations; and in other countries where stateless people face challenges reporting cases of violence or abuse to the authorities due to their precarious legal status.


In March 2020, as the world was trying to make sense of and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, stateless communities were not part of the equation. They were not even part of the conversation to determine what should and should not be in the equation. At this time, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) began receiving distress calls from partners – community groups, movements and networks led by stateless people – who were experiencing first hand, the life-threatening cost of excluding stateless people. It became evident that there was an urgent need for funding for local groups to serve their communities amidst the crisis, while preserving their own institutions, and for solidarity, coming together, drawing strength, inspiration and learnings from each other. The idea of an emergency response fund to support a community of statelessness actors at the frontline of the crisis emerged.

At ISI’s initiative, the COVID-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund (CESF) was established, channelling resources to a global consortium of 18 partners working in 17 countries. Guided by the local context and needs, these groups worked to address the COVID-19 impact on stateless people’s right to nationality, documentation and legal status, right to health, equality and non-discrimination, civil and political rights and socio-economic rights. Strategies included community outreach and awareness raising, paralegal support to navigate access to documentation and COVID-19 relief measures, research and mapping stateless communities, human rights abuses and the impact of COVID-19, advocacy for inclusion of stateless people in COVID-19 relief efforts and other services, advocacy for law and policy change to address structural discrimination and exclusion, and emergency humanitarian support as an interim relief measure. 

The impact of stateless-led initiatives during the pandemic

Through these community-led projects, a number of good practices and tangible impacts came about. For example, at first, official discourse in the Dominican Republic denied those deemed ‘illegal migrants’ and stateless people, who lack Dominican documentation, access to vaccines. However, at the local level, arrangements were made with decentralised public health services for these groups to receive the vaccine. The government of Montenegro changed its vaccine policy, and placed the Roma as a priority group for vaccination, and confirmed that all residents could receive the vaccine regardless of citizenship. In Lebanon, a vaccination hotline was created for stateless people, to assist with vaccination and documentation. As a result, the government announced that vaccination procedures would be simplified, and free healthcare would be allowed for stateless people.

Roadmap for change

Drawing on the learnings from the ground, ISI and the CESF Consortium also developed a practical 3-step Roadmap for relevant stakeholders was proposed, to protect the right to nationality and the rights of stateless people, during times of COVID-19 and beyond. The three steps are:

  1. Check for institutional blind-spots
  2. Include, consult & engage in dialogue
  3. Build back better

For the full roadmap, click here for the text or here for the video. 


[Last updated: October 2023]

Cover image by Tai

Voices & Experiences

  • Support to Stateless People in Kenya during COVID-19

    Africa 2

    Support to Stateless People in Kenya during COVID-19

    Africa 2

    “Stateless communities experienced challenges in accessing government services such as free vaccination due to lack of identification cards, access to food reliefs as identity cards for verification is required. Through the Covid-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund (CESF), we managed to support the Nubian community in Kibos who were forcefully evicted from their houses in the middle of the night by the Kenya Railway Cooperation. Most families lost their properties, and the emergency fund came at very good time allowing us to support over 100 families in Kibos.” 

    Nubian Rights Forum 


    The Nubian Rights Forum (NRF) is dedicated to promoting the rights of the Nubian community by assisting stateless people with their applications for identity and citizenship documents. NRF advocates for law reform and also trains and supports community based paralegals to help those at risk of statelessness navigate the Kenyan legal system. This included support during the COVID-19 pandemic.  


    Voice from https://files.institutesi.org/Together_We_Did_CESF_Report.pdf  

    (page 30)  

  • COVID-19 Worsened Urdu-Speaking Bihari’s Conditions in Bangladeshi Camps


    COVID-19 Worsened Urdu-Speaking Bihari’s Conditions in Bangladeshi Camps


    “My 6-year-old daughter was suffering from a cold and severe ear pain. I went to government hospital for treatment, but I did not get the hospital ticket when I said my address was Mirpur Bihari camp. The registrar refused me and said, “camps and camp dwellers are most vulnerable for the corona virus.” 

    Affected person



    The Urdu speaking community commonly referred to as the ‘Bihari’ fled to Bangladesh from Bihar, during the partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Many of this community chose to side with Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, leading to their loyalty to the new state being questioned. Bangladeshi authorities later recognised them as waiting to be ‘repatriated’ back to Pakistan. As a result, they were not recognised as Bangladeshi and most were rendered stateless. In 2008, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court recognised Biharis’ right to Bangladeshi citizenship and ordered the issuance of ID cards and their inclusion on voter rolls. However, they still face discrimination in access to citizenship rights, with many unable to access civil registration services or passports. They face poor sanitation conditions, inadequate access to clean water, inadequate housing, high levels of poverty and unemployment and poor access to education. The Urdu speaking community, in particular, those living in the ‘refugee camps’, were at heightened risk during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their living conditions and lack of access to services.  


    Voice from https://files.institutesi.org/together_we_can_report_2021.pdf  

  • The COVID-19 impact in Nepal

    Nepal 3

    The COVID-19 impact in Nepal

    Nepal 3

    “The Statelessness issue is a very pressing issue even without the pandemic. This pandemic has hit us in two ways. First, we are stuck and have not been able to do any substantial lobbying at the policy making level. Second. It has hit us hard and caused a crisis of survival. The stateless have been pushed further into marginalisation. Survival has become a priority and has affected citizenship-less people at every angle”. 

    CAPN Founder, Deepti Gurung 


    Due to gender discriminatory nationality laws, a patriarchal social structure and low birth registration rates, Nepal may have one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Hundreds of thousands of persons who should be recognised as Nepali citizens, have no legal identity or status. Without status, Nepal’s ‘non-citizens’ face disadvantage, exclusion and discrimination throughout their lives, forced to live in the margins of society.  


    Voice from NEPAL Together We Can 

Latest Resources: COVID-19

  • Nothing But a Pen and a Word: Voices from the Stateless Bidoon Community in Kuwait during the COVID-19 Pandemic

    Type of Resource: Report

    Theme: Covid-19

    Region: Middle East and North Africa

  • Marginalised and Impoverished in Assam

    Type of Resource: Report

    Theme: Covid-19

    Region: Asia / Pacific

  • UNICEF Bangladesh Country Office Annual Report 2021

    Type of Resource: Report

    Theme: Covid-19

    Region: Asia / Pacific