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U.N. Launches Campaign to Break Catch-22 of Statelessness

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 28 2011 (IPS) - For the majority of the world’s population, citizenship is a fact of life, something so fundamental that the idea of not being citizen to any state seems unfathomable. Yet for 12 million people worldwide, ordinary life as most people expect it is impossible because they belong to no country and are thus deprived of basic rights.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a campaign last week to raise awareness about the issue of statelessness, and to rally states to increase their efforts to address the struggles faced by stateless inhabitants – not citizens – of their countries.

Stateless communities and individuals “are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo,” said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Without legal status, these people are rendered relatively helpless to ameliorate their situations. In some countries, legislation is what prevents them from obtaining citizenship, yet they cannot vote and are not constituents of any legal representative. As a result, their voices often go unheard and their plight unnoticed.

In addition to these legal challenges, being stateless prevents people from accessing basic rights and leading normal lives. Without citizenship, receiving an education, finding employment, getting married, opening a bank account, or accessing health care become difficult if not impossible.

In 1954, states held the first convention relating to statelessness and managed to define who is considered stateless. In 1961, they held the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, agreeing on principles and a legal framework to help states reduce statelessness in their own laws. To date, only 66 states have signed the 1954 convention and 38 are party to the 1961 convention.

UNHCR estimates 12 million people are stateless in the world, but acknowledges that the very definition of statelessness complicates the gathering of accurate information, and some estimate that the number may be as many as 15 million globally.

Slipping Through the Cracks

An individual can lose his or her citizenship in several different ways. One of the most common instances is after a state ceases to exist, such as after the breakup of the Soviet Union and several of its republics in the 1990s. Other causes include racial or ethnic discrimination, discrimination against women, or simple negligence to register a child at birth.

Depending on the state, the legal pathway to becoming a citizen may be extremely expensive or complicated, or may not exist at all.

Russians living in Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for instance, were not eligible to apply for Kazakh citizenship after their Soviet Union citizenships became defunct. But unless they had lived in Russia for a certain period of time, they could not apply for Russian nationality either.

“These are problems that are solvable through administrative or legislative action,” Vincent Cochetel, a senior UNHCR staff member who was kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998, told IPS. Though in some countries, especially ones with racially or ethnically discriminatory practices and laws, laws “systematically create more obstacles for one part of the population to get access to citizenship.”

Few states have established laws that address such situations to override discrimination and grant stateless people citizenship. The issue is “totally overlooked by many countries,” Cochetel said, while other countries possess a “culture of denial” and seek to shift responsibility for stateless people within their borders onto other countries. In general, he said the issue possesses “not much traction” in the international community.

The commonly held belief that statelessness is a phenomenon of the past also impedes legal progress. What UNHCR hopes to do is convince states of the issue’s urgency so that they “put in place practical measures to assist people to be documented and to get a right to nationality,” Cochetel explained, and work with states to eliminate barriers that lead to or create statelessness.

Being stateless has dire consequences for such individuals, because “without nationality there is no access to anything,” Cochetel explained. Many of these individuals are part of marginalised communities with no government or embassy to turn to for protection. With limited education or employment opportunities, their very livelihoods are threatened.

A Global Issue

Statelessness is a problem existing in many parts of the world, though UNHCR highlighted Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and some African countries as places where it was “particularly acute”.

Others, including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, states from the former Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan and Kenya, were considered “works in progress” for amending legislation, though they have yet to fully implement it.

Some countries have successfully implemented laws granting citizenship to certain communities and minority groups. Bangladesh, Brazil, Iraq, Vietnam, and Indonesia all recently amended or passed constitutions or laws to make them more inclusive of those previously without citizenship due to gender, ethnicity, birth location, or time spent abroad.

UNHCR’s campaign will continue for several months and U.N. headquarters in New York is currently hosting an exhibit called “Nowhere People” featuring photographs and information on the world’s stateless.

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