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Human Rights Activists Focus on Stateless for World Refugee Day

Tatiana Lesnikova

As human rights activists prepare to mark the 9th World Refugee Day, June 20, one focus this year is on the "stateless". Those are the refugees who, for a variety of reasons, have no nationality. A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress would allow the United States' four thousand stateless residents to gain permanent legal status.

These are the people with no passports, no property, no vote. What the United Nations' refugee agency calls the "stateless" are the world's legal ghosts, and the topic of this recent Congressional hearing.

Dan Glickman is President of Refugees International:

"There are an estimated 12 million people worldwide who don't have claim to any nationality," said Dan Glickman. "It's an existential nightmare."

Senators were considering the plight of 4,000 stateless people living illegally in the United States. A new bill called the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would allow them to apply for legal permanent residence and quickly.

"My statement here refers to the case of a woman named Tatiana," said Glickman.

Tatiana Lesnikova has lived in the United States illegally for 18 years. She was born in Siberia, then moved to Ukraine before coming to the U.S. When the former Soviet Union dissolved, she was left without a nationality.

Reporter: "What does it mean to be stateless?"

Tatiana Lesnikova: "To be stateless it means to be nobody. We have no rights. I have no rights."

Tatiana has two sons. She brought one with her and left the other behind, sure she'd be able to return.

"If I am stateless the rest of my life it means I never in my life I won't be able to see my son," she said.

Experts say stateless refugees are not just a problem in the United States. Dozens of countries host them, with large populations in Africa and Asia. As nations have formed and dissolved, large groups of people have been left out. In some cases, they can not marry, attend school or own property.

Maureen Lynch is an expert on statelessness with Refugees International:

"We are not only talking about home ownership, or owning a car, or those kinds of things," said Maureen Lynch. "It can be something as small as owning a refrigerator. In some countries statelessness means not being able to get a mobile phone."

Lynch says it's an issue of national and international security.

"This kind of invisible status, they really aren't born and they don't die and we don't know exactly where they are and who they are is significant," she said.

Refugee rights activists say countries should nationalize their stateless people and grant them legal documents so they can work and travel. And they urge the United States to sign onto existing international agreements designed to recognize and protect the stateless.

What being stateless has meant for Tatiana Lesnikova is that she can be - and has been - jailed without warning. She's a nurse, but has to continually renew her work authorizations. This often causes her to miss work or lose jobs. Still, she wants to be an American.

"Because I think only in this country we were able to get on our feet without any help," said said Tatiana Lesnikova.

But for Tatiana, a little help could go a long way.