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Stateless Nation

Stateless Nation

Imagine you're from a minority ethnic group that has been oppressed for centuries. You live in a country where your native language is forbidden in schools and the workplace. The history books your country uses tell lies about you. You were forced from the land of your ancestors and have to move to a city; or maybe you were put in a "re-education" camp, had to flee the country altogether, or something even more terrible.

Sounds bad, right? Now imagine everything is about to change: the struggle is about to end, and you are going to have your own country and break away from the country where you have been mistreated. You'll get your ancestral lands back, you can speak your language, write your own history books, make your own laws...but there's a catch.

You see, the independence treaty you signed was ripped up. Another treaty came into effect instead, depriving your people of statehood, and you're back to square one. Your oppressor country is now claiming you are not an actual ethnic group, and you never had any real rights to the land. And this is just another day in the life of a stateless nation. Keep reading to learn more about the terminology of a stateless nation, the significance, and more.

Stateless Nation Definition

There are 193 member states in the United Nations, but only around 20 are, strictly speaking, nation-states, meaning states (government + geographical territory) with a single ethnic nation inhabiting the territory. The rest are multinational states: their territorial boundaries contain the territories of more than one ethnic nation. The US, for example, is a multinational state, because it contains hundreds of Native American nations. Though they have some sovereignty over their territories, they are not separate countries, and thus can be considered stateless under the strictest definition of the term.

Stateless Nation: An ethnic group that does not comprise the majority of the population in the country where its homeland is located, or in any other country. Over 90% of the 3,000 or so ethnic nations in the world are technically stateless under this definition. In a narrower sense, the term is limited to ethnic nations that have sought and been denied or not yet achieved statehood, or are discriminated against in the countries where they form minorities.

Nation and State Terminology

Before we go any further, let's clarify some terms:

Ethnic groups are named by other groups and also name themselves. These group names can vary over time and may depend on preferences.

The "Pame" of Mexico, who were targets of discrimination, consider the name insulting and prefer to be called Xi'ui. According to linguists, the language they speak is still called Pame.

"Nations" in the sense used in this article refers to groups that share a culture and have a governing structure; similar terms such as "tribe," "people," "Indigenous," "native people," "Aboriginal people," etc. (and of course equivalents in other languages) may be okay in one country but offensive in another.

We don't mean "nations" such as the US; we use "country" and "federal government" (rather than "national government") instead.

"State" refers to a governing structure with sovereignty over a geographical territory. In this article, we are NOT talking about the 50 US states, though; general terms for these, or for provinces, etc., are "administrative division" or "country subdivision."

Stateless Nation Examples

Because there are thousands of nations, it isn't practical to list them, but it is helpful to know some categories for distinguishing them:

Nations Limited to One State

Most ethnic nations have a homeland in only one state, though they may have members in a diaspora as well. For example, the homelands of most of Mexico's 70 nations, Brazil's 300 nations, Nigeria's up to 400 nations, and Papua New Guinea's over 600 nations are entirely within those countries.

Stateless nations, Map territories of the stateless nations of Mexico, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Territories of the stateless nations of Mexico with over 100,000 Indigenous language speakers. None have homelands outside of Mexico, but all have diasporas in the US

Nations Occupying Two+ States

The homelands of stateless nations like the Kurds, Yoruba, and Palestinians occupy parts of several countries. Trans-border stateless nations face many challenges. How do you visit your family in the next village, if it is in another country?

  • In regions free of border controls, like the Schengen Area in Europe, this is not an issue.

  • Neighboring countries that otherwise impose border controls sometimes allow the people of transborder nations to cross back and forth across a shared border without doing this or with an expedited process.

  • Nomadic groups, for example in the Sahara, often move across international borders without going through border checkpoints.

Formerly Independent Nations

Many nations were not always subject to the laws of a state. Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and numerous other countries are inventions of colonialism, so their nations have only recently become subject to a central government. Many of the US's hundreds of nations governed their own fully sovereign territory and did not come under US control until the 1800s.

In the case of Brazil, many nations, particularly in the Amazon, only learned that such a thing as a "country" existed upon contact with Brazilian outsiders, sometimes in recent decades. Due to the disastrous results of these contacts (e.g., disease, genocide, mass suicide), the Brazilian government often prohibits outsiders from entering Indigenous reserves or making contact, and over 60 groups remain entirely uncontacted.

Stateless nations, map of stateless territories in  Brazil, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A 2008 map shows territories with limited sovereignty granted to the Indigenous people of Brazil

Formerly Independent Nation-States

Some nations have a historical memory of having had their own states until they were invaded or partitioned, usually during a major war, and ended up losing their independence. Croatia is one such example in Europe; Tibet is a famous case in Asia.

Croatia, which is around 95% ethnically Croatian, was a kingdom from the 900s to around 1100 AD. Croatia regained its independence when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s.

The Tibetan nation ruled a powerful empire from the 600s-800s AD. The Tibetan nation is spread across several countries today; its cultural core area was occupied and annexed by China in the 1950s.

Rights of Stateless Nations

Stateless nations experience conditions ranging from autonomy of some type (the "best case" short of independence, which they may or may not desire) to the worst cases of complete landlessness and even having to exist in hiding!


Stateless nations are members of multinational states and guaranteed limited sovereignty; officially recognized by the government(s) of the country or countries in which they reside. Members have citizenship in the country in which they reside. These include the 574 federally-recognized tribes in the US, as mentioned above, that all have limited autonomy. Countries such as Australia and Canada have similar systems.

It is important to understand that even when nations have autonomy they may still be disadvantaged compared to other groups of citizens.

Recognition without Territory

Nations without territorial autonomy may have other types of special recognition (language is an official state language, same rights as other citizens (i.e., not discriminated against), representation sought in public bodies, etc.). Individuals or communities often possess legal land titles.

Unrecognized Countries

Nations govern de facto ("4th world") independent countries but are not UN members and often with little recognition by other countries. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and Somaliland are examples of these.

Captive Nations

Captive nations are trapped in highly discriminatory situations, still inhabiting ancestral homeland but bereft of many rights and legal protections. Limited recognition by their country's government, but second-class status. Indigenous groups in Latin America often fall into these categories; they may be protected in theory in state constitutions but suffer substantial discrimination in day-to-day life. Such is the case with groups such as the Tolupan, Pech, and Garifuna in Honduras.

Unrecognized Nations

Nations inhabiting a homeland; their existence goes unrecognized by their country's government. Many groups in China fall in this category.

Landless Nations

Nations inhabiting a country but deprived of all land. These cases typically have involved violent or deceptive removal tactics such as those used historically by the US.

Diaspora, Refugee, and Hidden Nations

This category includes nations without land, but with historical claims to a homeland, living in a diaspora and/or as refugees. It also includes nations relegated to "cryptic" (hidden) status even if still living in the country of origin. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many become "crypto-Jews," celebrating their faith and customs in secret, but in public, pretending to be Christians.

Palestine as a Stateless Nation

Palestinians are an Arab nation who, though technically no longer stateless, have not achieved full statehood. Palestine, which includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has Observer status at the United Nations but is not a member of the UN General Assembly. Palestinians have a long-running conflict with Israel and have also lived as refugees in countries such as Jordan and Egypt.

Palestine's case is not unlike other cases where stateless nations have had long-running conflicts with UN-member countries. Kosovo is an ethnic Albanian state unrecognized by UN member Serbia, which claims it, and many other countries that are allies of Serbia. The Donbas republics of Luhansk and Donetsk are ethnic Russian states that effectively seceded from Ukraine in 2014 but are only recognized by Russia, Syria, and North Korea as of 2022.

Kurds as a Stateless Nation

The Kurds, a non-Arab Iranian ethnic nation of some 30 to 40 million people in their homeland and diaspora, are one of the most often mentioned stateless nations because they had made multiple, unsuccessful attempts to achieve statehood and have suffered discrimination to the level of genocide in some of the countries they live. It's a tough neighborhood: Kurds are spread across a region known as Kurdistan, comprising the highlands of northern Syria, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and parts of Iran.

Stateless nations, map of Kurdistan, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Kurdistan ("Kurdish-inhabited area") in the 1990s

Kurds got the short end of the straw when borders in western Asia were drawn and redrawn. Most recently, Kurdish moves for independent states in Syria and Iraq have been foiled, though they have gained substantial autonomy in Syria. This has been at the cost of great suffering: Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on them in the 1980s, and the Islamic State during its brief reign of terror in the 2010s massacred them in large numbers. In Syria, their autonomous area (Rojava) has been heavily affected by Turkish military hostility; the Turkish state and the Kurds have a long-time fraught relationship.

Some 20 million Kurds live in Turkey. Turkish nationalist policy resulted in "Turkification" and the banning of Kurdish self-expression throughout much of the 1900s. Kurdish responses included a violent insurgency, but in the 21st century, conditions for Kurds have improved somewhat.

Nationality and Statelessness

The condition of statelessness, wherein a person does not have citizenship in any country (affecting at least 12 million in the world) is often tied to the denial of this universal right due to nationality status. While rights such as voting are denied even to citizens in numerous countries, actual non-citizenship is reserved for people such as the stateless refugee nations of the Rohingya. In Myanmar, they suffer from a long-running genocide and are denied citizenship. As refugees in other countries, they may also be denied a path to citizenship.

Stateless Nation Significance

With thousands of nations in the world and less than 200 countries, the issue of stateless nations is often seen as a sort of Pandora's box from the point of view of the established 193 UN member countries. Witness the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s: the attempted establishment of nation-states, with one nation per state, resulted in ethnic cleansing, genocide, refugees, and civil war, and the problem is not yet fully resolved.

Stateless Nation - Key takeaways

  • Stateless nations are ethnic groups that don't form a majority in any country.

  • They often faced discrimination ranging from denial of citizenship to dispossession of their homelands.

  • Examples include Kurds (Kurdistan), Palestinians (Palestine), and Yoruba.

Frequently Asked Questions about Stateless Nation

A stateless nation is an ethnic group that does not form a majority in the country or countries where its homeland is located.

The Kurds are a famous example of a stateless nation; their territory is called "Kurdistan."

The Kurds are the largest stateless nation.

Yes, the Kurds are a stateless nation.

Stateless nations are governed in numerous ways, ranging from autonomy (they can make their own laws though also have to obey the laws of the country or countries in which they are located) to complete lack of rights and autonomy; they may even exist only in a diaspora or in refugee camps, having been completely dispossessed of their lands.

Final Stateless Nation Quiz


(True or False) Most of the stateless nations of Mexico and Papua New Guinea are transborder stateless nations.

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False. Most are found only in their respective countries.

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Which of the following refers to the most disadvantaged situations for stateless nations?

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Refugees, hidden, and dispossession of homeland

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United States of America is:

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Multinational state

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(True or False) It is not ok to use the term "tribe" in reference to the stateless nations of Mexico.

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True. This is considered insulting or worse.

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When in doubt...

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Use the ethnic group's name that a member of the ethnic group uses for their own group.

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Which currently stateless nation was once independent?

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Palestine is to _______ as ________ is to Serbia.

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Israel; Kosovo

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The following are unrecognized countries

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Somaliland; Abkhazia; Donetsk Republic 

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Kurdistan comprises parts of these countries:

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Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran

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