Locked out: The 12 million people without a country, and the need to become a citizen
The victims of shifting borders, politics, or the happenstance of birthplace, the world's 12 million stateless people and their need to become citizens are rising on the international human rights agenda.
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"People who are stateless really have no life," says Maureen Lynch, the senior advocate for statelessness initiatives at Refugees International, an organization at the forefront of raising awareness about the problem. "To be a stateless person – it's like you are standing still and the world moves on around you.... It leads to a variety of human insecurity – for individuals, for communities, for society."Skip to next paragraph
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The stateless live in all parts of the globe, from Europe to Southeast Asia to the Caribbean – and even in the United States. And while the historical facts of stateless groups vary, the growing human rights movement is sounding the alarm over what advocates see as the universal impact of the condition: impoverishment, conflict, lack of education, poor health care, and other violations of human rights. If the state is the instrument that protects and ensures rights, they explain, those who live without a nationality are completely vulnerable.
Earlier this year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that it was "redoubling" its efforts to combat statelessness, saying the predicament "impacts not only the individuals concerned but also society as a whole, in particular because excluding an entire sector of the population may create social tension and significantly impair efforts to promote economic aid and social development."
Since 2007, the State Department has included a section on statelessness in its annual country reports, meaning it judges other nations' human rights records, in part, by how they handle citizenship rights.
Some individual countries have also taken steps to reduce statelessness within their borders. Although there are still barriers to citizenship, Nepal, for instance, recently provided documentation to hundreds of thousands of people – some of the millions who had been unable to obtain citizenship rights because of a change in law requiring people to prove "Nepali origin," a phrase that was applied differently in different regions and did not consider a mother's nationality. Bangladesh has started extending citizenship to some of the Bihari people, who for years have been rejected by both Pakistan and Bangladesh – a casualty of the division between East and West Pakistan in 1971. In May, the US Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on a bill that would help the 4,000 or so stateless people within the US, suggesting new mechanisms for them to acquire green cards.
"The good news," Ms. Lynch says, "is that statelessness is a problem that can be ended."
It may be difficult to find one blanket approach, she says, but in many cases, adjustments in laws and bureaucratic policy will fix much of the problem.
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