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Refugee Group Highlights Plight of World's Stateless People

A refugee advocacy organization is urging the international community to reduce the number of people lacking any official citizenship, a group estimated at more than 11 million worldwide. Stateless people are often unwanted in the countries where they reside, yet unable to go elsewhere, a situation that can leave them marginalized and vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. Few countries hosting large numbers of stateless people seem eager to provide a means to citizenship, and even UN officials acknowledge that the issue is not regarded as urgent.

The United Nations defines a stateless person as an individual who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law. Many Palestinians and ethnic Kurds fall under this category, but Maureen Lynch of Washington-based Refugees International says there are dozens of other groups.

"They are among individuals from the former Soviet bloc in the Baltics, some of Thailand's ethnic groups, the Bhutanese in Nepal, Muslim minorities in Burma and Sri Lanka, Europe's Roma, the Bidoon in the Middle East, cases in the Horn of Africa -- the list goes on and on," she said.

How does one become stateless? It can be as simple as being born to non-nationals in a country that does not automatically extend citizenship to all who are born within its territory. The U.S. constitution guarantees citizenship for those who enter the world on American soil without regard to parentage. But many other nations reserve citizenship to those who meet certain criteria, often pertaining to bloodlines and ethnicity. Kurds, for instance, face barriers to citizenship in nations from Syria to Iran. Human rights groups applaud Bahrain as one of the few Gulf States to grant citizenship to any portion of its Bidoon population. Distinctions can also be gender-based. The children of Egyptian men are automatically entitled to citizenship. But no such guarantee is extended to the children of Egyptian women who marry foreigners.

Refugees can become stateless. Transfers of territory between states can also render local residents stateless. Onerous or costly child registration procedures can leave entire segments of a population without a means to establish citizenship.

Whatever the cause, Maureen Lynch says lacking a nationality imposes real hardships. Ms. Lynch authored a new study on the subject for Refugees International, titled Lives on Hold: The Human Cost of Statelessness.

"Statelessness can mean no protection by a government, no right to participate in a political process, poverty, little opportunity to own property, no freedom of travel, social exclusion and little access to health care and education. Basically, their lives are on hold and they are almost [treated as] non-persons," she added.

Ms. Lynch says, at present, it is up to individual nations to address the needs of stateless people. But she points out that countries that intentionally exclude certain groups or segments of the population have little incentive to change their practices. So that leaves international organizations like the United Nations to try to improve matters. Article 15 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality." But U.N. officials say, in practice, there is little that can be done as long as the international community remains focused on other matters.

Janice Marshall is a senior regional protection officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"I think most governments have much higher priority issues on their radar screen,” she said. “They have issues of fighting terrorism, national security, creating jobs for their citizens. All of these issues have a much higher priority than groups of stateless people who, after all, do not have a vote."

The U.N. has crafted two international conventions pertaining to stateless people. The most recent, adopted in 1961, aims to establish the rights of people to nationality at birth and to promote the establishment of mechanisms for residents previously denied citizenship to acquire it. Yet only a few dozen nations have ratified the convention, and adherence is a matter of good faith.

Janice Marshall says the UNHCR's role in combating statelessness consists of providing advice to countries that ask for it, not disciplining those that do not.

"It is not that we are responsible for every stateless person worldwide, the way we more or less are for refugees because of the statute of the UNHCR,” she noted. “But we do have a role to play under the 1961 convention to try to help advise governments and help resolve cases of statelessness."

The bottom line is that no international authority is specifically tasked to improve the lot of stateless people. That leaves human rights organizations and other non-profit groups to try to draw attention to the issue. Once again, Refugees International research director Maureen Lynch:

"Refugees International recommends to the governments: respect the rights of all individuals to a nationality,” she added. “It is a basic human right. States can sign the international standards to protect stateless people and reduce statelessness simply by facilitating acquisition of nationality. States can allow non-citizens to rights and entitlements, and they can certainly ensure that every child is registered at birth and is granted nationality if they would otherwise be stateless."

Refugees International is calling on the UNHCR to establish concrete objectives for reducing statelessness, and to create a special department dedicated to seeing that objectives are met.