What does it feel like to not belong? What does it feel like to grow up in a home where you are viewed as a stranger even though it is the only home you ever had? What does it mean to be stateless?

(Worldbank, 2015)

While we are here simply imagining the feeling, it is the reality of around 100,000 people in Madagascar (“Statelessness affects millions in Africa: Madagascar is tackling the problem – Madagascar”, 2017). This has been Sougrabay Ibrahim’s life for 84 years as she shares the challenges she faces as a stateless person in an interview with UNHCR in 2017. Sougrabay Ibrahim is from the Karana community, one of the stateless minorities in Madagascar. The Karana are Indo-Pakistani Muslim descendants who have lived in Madagascar for over a century now. When Madagascar gained independence in 1960, many failed to acquire a nationality and remain stateless until today (Joint Submission to the Human Rights Council at the 34 th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, 2019). Back then, the Malagasy law only provided nationalities to individuals who have blood affiliations with a Malagasy parent (“Apatridie : toutes « ces personnes fantômes » que Madagascar ne reconnaît pas”, 2020). This law perpetuated statelessness within the community even though they were born and raised in Madagascar. 

But first, what is statelessness? 

According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, stateless persons are “individuals who are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws in any country.” Statelessness prevents people from benefiting from the most basic human rights such as nationality, access to education, and healthcare services. 

In 2014, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, launched a 10-year global campaign called “I Belong” to end statelessness. The #IBelongCampaign published a report addressing how statelessness impacts multiple facets of a child’s life from Ivory Coast to Georgia. 

Here is a simplified summary of the full report: First, being stateless puts additional roadblocks on a child’s access to education. The child misses documentation to enroll in a school and pass national examinations. Without any formal education, a child’s future is uncertain as (s)he will face considerable risks of unemployment. Second, a stateless child has limited access to healthcare services. From their birth to their daily lives, constant challenges arise because of discrimination or lack of documentation. A stateless person cannot travel (even for medical reasons) and faces a hurdle to receive a professional consultation. Finally, a child’s simple right to act and live as a child is removed. Society ensures that the child feels like an outsider because (s)he does not share similar physical features or ethnicities. It makes the child feel insecure and fear the place (s)he calls “home.” In Madagascar, the latter could not be more accurate.

How is Madagascar handling statelessness?

According to the UNHCR, “Discrimination – for example, on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion or gender – is the major cause of statelessness globally.” In Madagascar, the main concern is in situ statelessness (“Apatridie : toutes « ces personnes fantômes » que Madagascar ne reconnaît pas”, 2020). In situ statelessness refers to those who are stateless ‘in their own country,’ i.e. they have significant and long-term ties, generally through birth or long-term residence (“Statelessness”, n.d.). The ones most affected are minority communities who have lived in the country for centuries but could not acquire nationality at the country’s independence in 1960. For minority communities such as the Karana (Indo-Pakistani), the Sinoa (Chinese), and the Comorian descents, Madagascar is home. For them, generations were born and raised in the country. Because of statelessness’s complex nature, it is hard to find reliable data regarding the exact number of stateless persons in Madagascar. UNHCR estimated the number at 100,000 in 2018. 

Successive governments in Madagascar have failed to address the minorities’ communities’ statelessness since 1960. To better understand the country’s response to statelessness, it is necessary to address two questions: 1) What treaties, conventions, protocols did Madagascar sign? 2) What are our responsibilities, as a society, in ending statelessness.

1. Conventions & Protocols

A periodic review from UNHCR summarizes Madagascar’s commitment towards ending statelessness over the last few years. “Madagascar is a State party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (acceded on 18 December 1967) but has not acceded to its 1967 Protocol. Madagascar’s Government is a party to the 1969 OAU Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa (signed on 10 September 1969). Madagascar is not party neither to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, nor to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The Government of Madagascar acceded to the 1954 Convention in 1962 but denounced it a few years later; the denunciation took effect on 2 April 1966. Madagascar has not signed the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection” (Universal Periodic Review – Madagascar, 2019). The fact that the country has not acceded to several conventions makes the system incomplete and unready to address statelessness efficiently. The treaties, conventions, and protocols are complementary and were designed to create a robust framework together. Apart, they are less effective.

2. Underlying Beliefs

Society’s influence on statelessness is hard to assess but cannot be ignored. As most recommendations from the international community put full responsibility for ending statelessness on the Government, it is easy to forget society’s role in reinforcing the roadblocks faced by stateless persons.

Until today, the effects of France’s colonization on the Malagasy population’s mindset are undeniable. France employed strategies to pervert people’s minds into fearing blackness and hating other ethnicities during its strong presence in the country. Over the years, the Malagasy population nourished fear resulting in hate towards Comorian descents and those who are not ethnically Malagasy (Joint Submission to the Human Rights Council at the 34 th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, 2019). Therefore, stateless minorities are never fully welcomed in the community as they are constantly treated as outsiders even though they were born and raised in Madagascar. The fact that some minority communities are still labeled as “karana, sinoa” reinforces their stigmatization. Unintentionally, individual actions towards the minority communities exacerbate the challenges of statelessness. 

Ending statelessness together

Statelessness is not a choice. No one should have to live 84 years with the constant fear of being arrested because of missing documentation. No one should be denied the right to go to school or to pass exams because of missing birth certificates. No one should have to face such roadblocks when all of us can prevent them. On the one hand, policymakers are responsible for advocating and passing laws that will step-by-step provide nationalities to the 100,000 stateless people in the country. The Government needs to rethink its priorities and review the conventions and protocols it adheres to. 

On the other hand, as a society, we also have to intentionally question our beliefs and actions towards stateless persons around us. How do we perceive diversity? How do we respond to it? How do simple denominations such as “karana” and “sinoa” reinforce stigmatization? What are our responsibilities? Society has a share of responsibility at fully integrating the minority communities. It requires each individual to consciously stop the stigmatization and work on creating a more unified community. 

So much still needs to be done. Ending statelessness won’t happen overnight, even though it is an urgent matter impacting possibly more than 100,000 people today. It is time to start creating together a new Madagascar, which embraces and thrives with its diversity. 


Apatridie : toutes « ces personnes fantômes » que Madagascar ne reconnaît pas. Studiosifaka.org. (2020). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.studiosifaka.org/articles/actualites/item/2284-apatridie-toutes-ces-personnes-fantomes-que-madagascar-ne-reconnait-pas.html.

Focus Development Association, Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. (2019). Joint Submission to the Human Rights Council at the 34 th Session of the Universal Periodic Review [Ebook]. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://files.institutesi.org/UPR34_Madagascar.pdf.

Statelessness. Aprrn.info. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from http://aprrn.info/wiki/tiki-index.php?page=Statelessness#:~:text=In%20situ%20statelessness%20refers%20to,birth%20or%20long%2Dterm%20residence.&text=In%20addition%20to%20in%20situ,individuals%20of%20a%20migrant%20background.

Statelessness affects millions in Africa: Madagascar is tackling the problem – Madagascar. ReliefWeb. (2017). Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://reliefweb.int/report/madagascar/statelessness-affects-millions-africa-madagascar-tackling-problem#:~:text=The%20exact%20number%20of%20stateless%20people%20in%20Madagascar%20is%20unknown,country%20with%2024%20million%20inhabitants.

Universal Periodic Review – Madagascar. (2019). [Ebook]. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/madagascar/session_20_-_october_2014/unhcr_upr20_mdg_e_main.pdf

Worldbank. (2015). Estimated number of stateless people around the globe in 2015 [Image]. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://blogs.worldbank.org/digital-development/world-citizen-transforming-statelessness-global-citizenship.