16 minute read

Girls pump water in Balukhali refugee camp

Statelessness affects millions of people. A stateless child is born every 10 minutes. The Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative has been created to address a gap in information on stateless populations. This research has been identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as necessary to end statelessness.


The challenge

Stateless people are not recognised as citizens of any country. As a result, they often struggle with aspects of their lives that citizens take for granted, including:

  • access to medical care
  • education
  • employment
  • the right to travel.

In some cases, stateless persons face protracted periods in detention or more extreme forms of persecution.

There are many causes of statelessness, including:

  • the forces that create refugee flows and push people out of their home country
  • loss of citizenship due to discriminatory laws or persecution
  • poorly drafted nationality laws or as a consequence of state succession
  • an ongoing lack of recognition by a country as being a citizen – and sometimes across generations.

Historically, the phenomenon of statelessness was overlooked by the international community. However, the identification, recognition and legal protection of stateless persons has undergone a renaissance in the past decade, chiefly led by the work of the UNHCR.


The UNHCR recognises the vital role of research in achieving its ambitious goals. Until recently, there have been significant gaps in qualitative and quantitative information on stateless populations. And in analyses of the causes of statelessness. The Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative was established in 2018 to address this.

The initiative aims to:

  • create opportunities for University of Melbourne researchers to engage in academic collaboration and multidisciplinary research on statelessness and citizenship
  • build capacity and understanding of statelessness amongst academic and research communities in the Asia Pacific region
  • increase the availability of high-quality data, information, research and training on statelessness to fill knowledge gaps and inform public policy
  • build connections and opportunities for collaboration between University of Melbourne researchers and academics working in Asia and the Pacific.


About the seed funding scheme

In 2018 and 2019, the initiative awarded seed funding for interdisciplinary research projects on topics related to statelessness, citizenship and identity. Projects funded in 2019 will continue until the end of 2020. There will be no further funding rounds.

The aim of this scheme has been to:

  • increase cross-disciplinary collaboration on statelessness across the University and with external partners
  • develop small-to-medium sized interdisciplinary research projects that show significant potential for future funding by granting bodies.

Proposals have been invited on a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, issues around:

  • nationality
  • deprivation of citizenship
  • legal identity and documentation
  • risk of statelessness
  • human rights issues connected with the causes and ramifications of statelessness.

The initiative has been eager to support the career development of early career researchers. It has provided opportunities for them to participate in and play a significant role within interdisciplinary research teams.

At the end of 2020, a workshop is planned to bring together all grant recipients to present their project outcomes. They will also be able to seek critical feedback for follow-on funding.

2019 projects – to complete in 2020

To read about projects that were completed in 2019, visit seed funding projects round one.

Citizenship in hybrid societies and its relevance for Australian law

Jayani Nadarajalingam (Melbourne School of Government), with Cheryl Saunders (Melbourne Law School), Anne Carter (Deakin Law School) and Patrick Emerton (Monash Law School)

This project investigates the complexities of citizenship in hybrid societies and its relevance for Australian law. Hybrid societies are ones in which the modern state is not the main political actor. Instead, it is only one political actor among others. As a result, does not provide the only (or main) institutional framework within which people live their lives.

The project will have three parts. The first will study the theoretical underpinnings of citizenship and legal identity formation in the context of hybrid societies.

The second part will put forward a novel account of how Australian public law should understand and engage with citizenship that arises in the context of hybrid societies.

The third part of the project constitutes a workshop centred around the themes and questions raised by the first two parts of the project. In doing so, it will bring together scholars and practitioners working on these topics in the Asia Pacific region.

Preventing statelessness in India: exclusion and access in Assam’s National Register of Citizens appeals process

Jeff Redding (Melbourne Law School and Australia India Institute), with Mohsin Alam Bhat (Jindal Global University)

This project will build a multidisciplinary inquiry into the impending crisis of statelessness in India. The crisis is the result of the government-administered National Register of Citizens (NRC), which sought to list all the Indian citizens in the eastern state of Assam. The final NRC excluded around 2 million residents of the state, rendering them at the verge of statelessness.

The project will study the legal process during the initial months of the appeals process, particularly:

  • court decisions
  • institutional independence
  • access to justice
  • conditions in detention centres.

It will develop these findings to build a legal intervention for a more thorough oversight by India’s appeals court.

The project will also study the social dimension of the problem, particularly the:

  • impact on vulnerable groups like women and children
  • precariousness of excluded individuals
  • insecurity of marginalised communities facing statelessness.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with the Centre of Public Interest Law at O.P. Jindal Global University (India).

Contested belonging: the documentation and creation of legal identity by non-state actors in civil war

Sara Meger (School of Social and Political Sciences), with Marika Sosnowski (School of Social and Political Sciences), Bart Klem (University of Gothenburg) and Katharine Fortin (Utrecht University)

This project investigates legal-political subjectivity in the context of civil war. It explores efforts of non-state actors to document and create legal identity in conditions of contested governance.

This project draws together researchers and practitioners across four conflict contexts: Syria, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. It will deepen our understanding of the strategies, rationales and legitimations of non-state actors in pursuing the issuance of legal identity, as well as the political, legal and social impacts of these manoeuvres.

The project hopes to strengthen the scholarship on rebel governance, statelessness and de facto political orders. It will do so along three lines of inquiry: insurgency, materiality and legality.

Stateless children of migrants in Lebanon

Bina Fernandez (School of Social and Political Sciences, with Karen Block (Melbourne School of Population and Global Health), Yara Mourad and Aseel Jammal (Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut), and Roula Hamati (Insan Association)

This project will study statelessness experienced by the children of undocumented migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Research will focus on migrant women from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

The study aims to identify the legal barriers to such children securing legal recognition and status. The project will review laws in Lebanon as well as the migrants’ origin countries relating to nationality, marriage and birth registration.

The project will be implemented in partnership with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. And with Insan Association, a local NGO in Beirut.

Findings from the study will provide insights into potential pathways to securing nationality status for stateless children of migrants.

Blending traditional and contemporary approaches to conflict resolution: a case study of Naga community cross-border dialogue

Anne Decobert (School of Social and Political Sciences), with Michael Breen (School of Social and Political Sciences), Dolly Kikon (School of Social and Political Sciences) and Joseph Lo Bianco (Melbourne Graduate School of Education)

This pilot project explores new conflict resolution approaches that:

  • integrate traditional and emerging social science methods
  • have the potential to foster peaceful cross-border relationships among stateless and other vulnerable populations.

The project is a collaboration with individuals representing Naga Peoples of North-East India and North-West Myanmar. The Naga identify as a stateless nation, members of which have been in conflict with the state in both India and Myanmar for over 60 years. Despite being next door to one another, there have been few peace-building initiatives between Naga communities on either side of the border.

This project will facilitate a dialogue between key Naga community members from India and Myanmar. It aims to lay the foundations for longer-term collaborative work with Naga academics and leaders. The long-term aim is to develop a transferable conflict resolution approach that also addresses questions around citizenship and identify in conflict transformation processes.

A place to call home (phase 2): examining the numbers, location and lived experience of stateless refugee children in Australia

Katie Robertson and John Tobin (Melbourne Law School), with Sarah Dale (Refugee Advice and Casework Service)

Children born on Australian soil are not guaranteed the right to Australian citizenship. Citizenship is foundational to a child's sense of identity, providing them with fundamental rights. Importantly, for children of refugees it can also offer safety: a place to call home.

In Australia, a significant but unknown number of children have been born into statelessness to parents of refugee background. This project seeks to expand upon research conducted through the first round of the Statelessness initiative funding. This research explored the legal needs, complexities and gaps experienced by these children. It found that there is a significant but unknown number of stateless refugee children in Australia with presumed entitlement to citizenship.

This second phase of the project will partner with the Refugee Advice Casework Service to map the location and identity of refugee children in Australia and link them with legal services. The family members’ lived experience of statelessness will also be documented.

Project spotlight: Banal statelessness in and from Myanmar: A study of non-Rohingya Muslims

Vanessa Lamb (School of Geography), with Nyi Nyi Kyaw (Visiting Fellow, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute)

The genocide and plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is attracting increased global attention and examination. In this project, we will complement the work already being done on this region by investigating forms of ‘statelessness’ faced by non-Rohingya Muslims in and from Myanmar.

Research on people who’ve been unable to attain identity cards or be recognised as citizens of Myanmar is limited. Understanding their challenges will shed light on factors shaping statelessness and identity in Myanmar and in the region.

Research will involve reviewing the Myanmar Citizenship Law and associated rules. And also interviews and review of secondary literature.

 A woman in a purple scarf stands outside the Women's Centre in Balukhali camp


Professor Michelle Foster – Initiative Chair

Professor Michelle Foster is the Chair of the Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative and the inaugural Director of the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School.

Michelle has published widely in the fields of:

  • international refugee law
  • socio-economic rights.

Michelle’s most recent publications explore various legal issues concerning the recognition and protection of stateless persons, including a monograph with Professor Helene Lambert, entitled International Refugee Law and the Protection of Stateless Persons (forthcoming OUP, 2018).

Michelle teaches refugee law and international refugee law at Melbourne Law School. In 2017, she taught in the International Summer School in Forced Migration at University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre.

Dr Christoph Sperfeldt – Academic Convenor

Dr Christoph Sperfeldt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness and the Academic Convenor of the initiative. Christoph pursues interdisciplinary research interests in areas of:

  • human rights and justice, including statelessness, international and regional human rights protection regimes
  • transitional and international criminal justice (with an emphasis on reparations).

He has studied these issues particularly in a context of peacebuilding and development cooperation.

Erika Feller

Erika Feller is currently a Professorial Fellow in the Melbourne School of Government, serving at the same time in various advisory capacities outside the University, including as a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the Humanitarian Advisory Group, a social enterprise working to elevate the profile of humanitarian action in Asia and the Pacific. From 2014 to 2017, she held the appointment of Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at the University, located in the Melbourne School of Government.

UNHCR is the UN agency with the mandate to protect and assist stateless persons. This is predominantly a protection function. Erika oversaw the protection policy and delivery in UNHCR for over 13 years. She did this first as Director of the Division of International Protection and then during her seven years as UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.

John Tobin

Professor John Tobin is the Francine McNiff Chair in International Human Rights Law at Melbourne Law School. In 2010, he was awarded the Barbara Falk Award for Teaching Excellence by the University of Melbourne. And in 2011 he was awarded a national citation for outstanding contribution to student learning in the area of human rights.

Professor Tobin’s expertise with respect to children’s rights is important for the initiative. This is because UNHCR estimates that there is a stateless child being born at least every 10 minutes. And the effects of being born stateless are profound. They can include a lack of access to the most basic of human rights such as medical care. So, research and advocacy with regard to the link between children’s rights and statelessness is essential to finding solutions to statelessness.

Susan Kneebone

Over the last decade, Professor Susan Kneebone's research, teaching and publications have focused on forced migration, including refugees, statelessness and citizenship, in South-East Asia.  The issue of citizenship is important to understanding the rights of migrant workers.

Susan’s current ARC Discovery Grant is directly relevant to these issues as it has a focus on the nationality and rights of children of marriage migrants (people who migrate as a result of marriage). Many of these people are stateless. Through this project, her geographic focus extends to East Asia (Taiwan and South Korea,) and her substantive focus is statelessness and the rights of children.

The Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative is overseen by a Steering Committee that includes representatives from various disciplines. They guide the research program and support the Chair.

News and events

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Visiting fellowships

2021 visiting fellowship scheme

The visiting fellowship scheme provides an opportunity for statelessness scholars across the globe to engage with the University of Melbourne. Scholars will visit the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School between February and December 2021. The scheme exists to encourage international research collaborations.

The initiative welcomes applications from researchers at all stages in their career, from graduate researchers to tenured academics. Applications from non-academic visiting professionals will also be considered, if they propose an applied research project of relevance to the work of the Peter McMullin Centre.


The Peter McMullin Centre offers visiting fellowships for up to two months. Visiting scholars are provided with a workspace, computer and library access. They’re expected to:

  • give a public seminar as part of the Centre’s seminar series
  • participate in the academic life and work of the Centre including offering a work in progress for our reading group
  • participate in events and workshops where applicable.

The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School was established in 2018. It undertakes research, teaching and engagement activities aimed at reducing statelessness and protecting the rights of stateless people in Australia, the Asia Pacific region and, as appropriate, more broadly.


The Centre accommodates self-funded visiting fellows and those seeking a scholarship to cover parts of their expenses. Applications from self-funded Visiting Fellows will also be considered outside the application period, subject to the availability of space.

Funding of up to AU$4000 is available for visiting fellows towards the costs of travel to and accommodation in Melbourne. Applicants should consider additional expenses they may incur beyond this amount, before they apply.

Visiting fellows from outside Australia are responsible for obtaining and funding any necessary visas or insurance. Fellowships are funded by the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness and the initiative.

Application process

Visiting fellowships are to be taken up from February to December 2021.

Applications should be emailed to and must include the following in one PDF document:

  • Curriculum vitae and list of publications
  • Research plan (maximum 1000 words), outlining the:
    • research
    • proposed activities/collaboration during visiting period
    • contribution to the work of the Centre.
  • Proposed dates of the visit in 2021
  • Indication of whether a visiting fellowship grant is sought. For those seeking funding, please provide a brief justification, including any other funding sought or secured to cover expenses (maximum 250 words)
  • One letter of reference. For graduate researchers, a letter of reference from the PhD supervisor. For non-academic visitors, a letter of support from an employer or other entity the visitor is professionally associated with.


The 2021 visiting fellowship scheme will open for applications in mid-2020. Please sign up to our mailing list to keep informed.

Visiting fellows 2020

Zahra Albarazi, Statelessness expert and consultant, UK

Proposed research: Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

Talha Abdul Rahman, Legal Practitioner before Supreme Court, New Delhi, India

Proposed research: Assessment of adjudicatory processes regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the state of Assam in India

Iryna Aleksieieva, Project Manager and strategic litigation expert, NGO ‘Right to Protection’, Kyiv, Ukraine

Statelessness in Ukraine: limits to right to a nationality on grounds of national security

Victoria Reitter, PhD student, Department of Sociology, University of Salzburg, Austria

Bureaucratic practices in handling stateless persons’ registration, statelessness determination and decision-making.

Visiting fellows 2019

Janepicha Cheva-Isarakul, PhD candidate (anthropology), Victoria University of Wellington

Stateless Shan in Thailand; and collaborator on the Centre’s nomadic peoples & statelessness project.

Heather Alexander, PhD candidate (law), Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Nomadic peoples and statelessness.

Julija Sardelic, Marie Curie Postdoc Fellow, Leuven International and European, University of Leuven, Belgium

Statelessness and citizenship of Roma in Europe.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Visiting Fellow, Myanmar Studies Program, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

How arbitrary state policies and practices in Myanmar have made citizenship regressively inaccessible for Rohingya.

Lindsey Kingston, Associate Professor, Director, Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, Webster University, USA

Conceptualising “statelessness-as-punishment” (denationalisation).


The initiative supports a range of research and innovation-enabling activities including visiting fellowships, workshops and public events.

If you’d like to connect with the Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative, we’d love to hear from you!

For general enquiries, please contact us at

The Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative is supported by the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness.

Images: UN Women/Allison Joyce under CC BY-NC-ND

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The Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness

The Centre undertakes research, teaching and engagement to reduce statelessness and protect the rights of stateless people in Australia, the Asia Pacific region, and more broadly.