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World's vast ranks of the stateless

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Experts say that international conventions alone, however, cannot address the problem. Resolution comes down to a question of national political will.

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"A state could be a signatory to the convention, because that's a matter of the executive, but then the legislature doesn't follow through to conform to the law," says Michael R. Geske, counsel for Arnold & Porter LLP based in Washington, D.C.

To this effect, a recent survey of the parties to the 1954 and 1961 conventions, released this summer by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that "serious legislative and policy gaps remain, both at the international and the national level.... Many States do not have mechanisms which effectively identify cases of statelessness."

Most states seem either unable or unwilling to address the problem. In Bangladesh, efforts to grant citizenship to the stateless have stalled for 34 years, in part because the community itself is divided, with a minority wishing to repatriate to Pakistan.

"The government does not know how to handle it. No one does. The government has not picked it up. Civil society has not picked it up. These people have been left to fend for themselves," says Chowdhury R. Abrar, head of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit based in Dhaka.

These are powerful lessons to bear in mind in light of nation-building efforts around the world, particularly Iraq. "For Iraq, it's very clear that Saddam Hussein deprived many people of their nationality - particularly the Kurds," says Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's senior legal officer for statelessness. "What we would like to see in the negotiations on the constitution is to ensure ... that it is not possible to deprive a person of his or her nationality on grounds linked to religion or other factors."

A number of solutions exist for preventing statelessness, including something as simple yet effective as birth registrations. "Much of statelessness is caused because stateless people cannot prove their citizenship by birth," says Geske.

Most important of all, nation-states cannot rely on the law alone to address the problem, experts say.

"What we're starting to begin is a more comprehensive response to statelessness," says Mr. Leclerc, pointing out that humanitarian aid, political support, awareness raising, and links with development agencies are vital ingredients. The approach, he says, helped win citizenship last year for 190,000 people in Sri Lanka, one of the longest cases of stateless in the world.

Activists and political observers in Bangladesh see signs that similar efforts are bearing fruit here as well. Public awareness campaigns, coupled with legal action, culminated in the High Court of Bangladesh ruling in 2003 that Noor Islam and others living in the camps are eligible to be placed on the national voting list, which would effectively grant them citizenship rights. The ruling has yet to be taken up by the highest levels of government, but observers read it as a sign that the stateless community here is on the brink of that most elusive of dreams: citizenship.

"The court case has brought a change because it applies to everyone who is living in the camps. If the government has a will, they can resolve this problem," says Ahmed Ilias, executive director of Al-Falah, an organization in Dhaka providing educational support to the stateless community.