The State of Statelessness in Ukraine

Stateless persons are unable to prove citizenship to any country. Many are forcibly displaced, and all are vulnerable, particularly in conflict zones and other fragile contexts. Mounting evidence suggests that Russian president Putin’s regime is exploiting statelessness in Ukraine to aid in his war effort, including offering stateless persons Russian citizenship in return for military service and by forcibly deporting people—including an estimated 6,000 children—to Russia from parts of Ukraine with high concentrations of stateless persons.

As Putin’s war in Ukraine moves into its second year, this Critical Questions defines statelessness and discusses why it is an important—yet underappreciated—facet of the conflict.

Q1: What is statelessness? What is it not?

A1: Stateless persons are “not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country.” Being stateless is different from being undocumented. While undocumented people do not possess valid documentation to reside in a country or prove their identity, they are typically registered in national systems as citizens of a state and can be verified as citizens through expired documents or record retrieval. Stateless persons, on the other hand, are not recognized by any state as citizens, their identity is not registered in civil records, and they are typically not in possession of any valid document that can verify their identity, place of residence, or country of origin.

Approximately 10 million people are stateless globally, while many others are at risk of statelessness. There are 600,000 in Europe and more than 200,000 in the United States. While some people are born into statelessness, others can become stateless due to personal or political circumstances. Common causes for statelessness include: being born to stateless parents and thus unable to be registered at birth; gaps in nationality laws; discrimination based on ethnic origin, gender, or religious affiliation; state succession and dissolution; irregular migration resulting in forfeiture of citizenship; and lack of cohesion between the laws of different states.  

Exact reasons and severity of repercussions for statelessness vary from one country to another. In some countries, for example, stateless persons can obtain residence permits; however, even in these places typically only a small fraction of them are able to thanks to legal costs and bureaucratic and language barriers. Most stateless persons are thus unable to participate in civic life, they face additional barriers when accessing medical services, education or even employment opportunities, and their ability to move is severely restricted. As such, stateless persons are especially vulnerable to neglect, discrimination, displacement, poverty, and exploitation.

International law covers statelessness primarily through the UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954) and the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961). In addition to defining and recognizing the status of “statelessness,” these conventions concretely outline minimum international standards of treatment and codify the rights of stateless persons, with the goal of preventing and reducing statelessness over time.

Q2: What did statelessness look like in Ukraine before the February 24 Russian invasion?

A2: Statelessness has long been an issue in eastern Europe, particularly in post-Soviet states such as Ukraine. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Soviet nationality ceased to exist. As was the case in most former Soviet republics, the majority of people in what became Ukraine were able to acquire Ukrainian citizenship in the newly formed state based on Soviet residence records and physical presence. However, some people within Ukraine’s new borders lacked the necessary Soviet era documentation to prove permanent residence and others—particularly minority groups—were discriminatorily excluded, resulting in many being unable to acquire Ukrainian citizenship. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 1,674,835 children were born in Ukraine between 1991 and 2021 to stateless parents.

As a result, stateless persons in Ukraine include former Soviet Union citizens unable to acquire Ukrainian nationality, as well as ethnic Ukrainians who had permanent residence in other former Soviet republics at the time of the dissolution, people from disputed territories and Crimea, as well as migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Ukraine but were stateless prior to their arrival.

Approximately 20 percent of Ukraine’s 400,000 Roma people are either stateless or at risk of statelessness as a result of forcible displacement after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an inability to prove their birthplace or residence. Some Roma children now inherit statelessness from their parents, leaving them unable to access education. As a result, a large percentage of Roma people are illiterate, and thus not easily reached by documentation programs and campaigns which aim to assist stateless persons.

The 2014 Russian invasion left people living in nongovernment-controlled areas (NGCAs) of Ukraine—e.g., parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea—particularly vulnerable to statelessness. An estimated 60,000 children were born in these regions without birth certificates from mid-2015 to March 2021. UNHCR estimates that only approximately 10 percent of children in Crimea were given a birth certificate during this period.

Q3: How has statelessness been regulated in Ukraine and toward those from Ukraine?

A3: Ukraine first legally recognized statelessness with the 1997 amendments to Ukraine’s citizenship law. A new citizenship law in 2001 altered the process to seek Ukrainian nationality, removing the requirements that applicants had to show proof of Ukrainian language skills, five years of legal residence in Ukraine, and a need to renounce other citizenship before applying (which had created a new stateless community). In 2013, Ukraine furthered its recognition of stateless persons, becoming party to both the 1954 and 1961 international conventions on statelessness.

Despite acceding to these conventions in 2013, it took seven years for Ukraine to align its domestic legal definition of statelessness with the international standard defined by the 1954 convention. In June 2020, Law 693-IX, “On Amending Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine Regarding Recognition of a Stateless Person,” created a mechanism for stateless persons to apply for recognition in the form of a temporary residence permit (TRP) and a travel document. Under this law, after a person has had a TRP for two years, they would be eligible to apply for a permanent residence permit (PRP) granting them access to healthcare as well as the right to study, work, and eventually gain Ukrainian citizenship. A December 2021 law further reduced how long stateless persons need to wait to apply for naturalization after recognition, from three to five years.

While the June 2020 and December 2021 laws were important advances toward recognizing and protecting Ukraine’s stateless populations, only 55 people had received temporary residence permits out of over 1,000 applicants by February 2022 when Putin’s army invaded. Whereas people with a “stateless person’s travel document” have a right to temporary protection within the European Union, other stateless persons looking to flee Ukraine may not be able to so via regular channels. Even those who have been recognized as stateless by the Ukrainian government—and possess a temporary residence permit—may not be able to obtain temporary protection in EU countries. Most importantly, the hundreds of people who have applied for statelessness determination from Ukraine—but have not yet received it—are ineligible for temporary protection within the European Union.

Q4: How has the Russian invasion reshaped Ukraine’s statelessness issue?

A4: While there are an estimated 14 million people displaced by Russian invasion—refugees and internally displacement persons—stateless persons fleeing conflict face distinct issues. An estimated 8 million people have fled Ukraine over the past year, refugee figures not seen on the European continent for at least 70 years. But for thousands of stateless persons now internally displaced or trapped in a legal void in neighboring countries unable to access the protection and resources available to Ukrainian citizens, refugee (or any) status would likely be welcome.

Without a recognized identity within Ukraine or internationally, many stateless persons are unable to get through internal and international checkpoints, forcing them to stay in regions facing active conflict and violence. In Ukraine’s NGCAs—including parts of Luhansk and Donetsk—many parents forced to flee have no proof that their children are legally theirs. This leaves these children vulnerable to trafficking, makes reunification more difficult should the family be separated, and offers a sinister opportunity for Putin’s regime: forced deportation.

Numerous reports document Ukrainians being “interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported” to Russia, largely from the Mariupol and Kharkiv regions within NGCAs where the statelessness issue has been widespread since well before Russia’s latest invasion. Forced through a “filtration” process—in part to identify and detain people who might serve as a threat to the Russian war effort—many families have been separated, with children taken and “rehomed” with Russian families.

Russia has altered its citizenship guidelines several times in 2022, streamlining the process for stateless persons deported or displaced from Ukraine to gain Russian citizenship. For example, while the process to obtain Russian citizenship had required proof of five years of permanent residence in Russia along with proof of sufficient funds, the updated procedure for people from Ukraine required only an application that can be filled out at a local government office. In July 2022, Putin signed an executive order simplifying the citizenship process for all Ukrainian citizens and stateless persons residing in Ukraine. Similarly, a week after announcing mass mobilization of the Russian army in September 2022, he signed a decree making it possible for stateless persons and foreigners to trade a year of service in the Russian Armed Forces for Russian citizenship.

These changes have in essence created a domestic legal framework for the “unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons” which the United States government considers “a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and constitutes a war crime.” A February 2023 report found that more than 6,000 Ukrainian children have been removed from their families and forced into “integration programs” held within a network of at least 43 facilities in Russia and Russian-occupied territories—some nearly 4,000 miles from Russia’s border with Ukraine. Stateless persons, especially children who lack birth certificates or have stateless parents, are easy targets for such war crimes, and there is little that their families can do to legally justify reunification—if they can locate their children at all.

Abigail Edwards is a research assistant with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ángeles Zúñiga is a research intern with the CSIS Project on Fragility and Mobility. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the CSIS Project on Fragility and Mobility.

Ángeles Zúñiga

Intern, Project on Fragility and Mobility
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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program