UN refugee agency vows to end statelessness within a decade. Realistic?

From redrawn borders to state-sanctioned discrimination, statelessness exists for a variety of reasons. As many as 10 million people lack the protection and rights afforded to citizens of legal entities.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP/file
Rohingya children travel in a rickshaw in northern Myanmar in June. Members of the oppressed minority group make up the largest stateless population in the world.

The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday launched a campaign to end statelessness worldwide within 10 years, promising to help the estimated 10 million people with no country to call home. 

The campaign to extend citizenship comes amid a seemingly endless series of conflicts across the globe. But this ambitious goal is achievable, Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, told The Associated Press

Stateless people are not legally recognized as citizens of any country. These individuals live in countries ranging from Myanmar to the Dominican Republic; they face discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, and gender. In denying stateless people nationality, governments deny them many of the rights and services available to regular citizens such as health care, education, and voting.

"Statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime," Mr. Guterres said in a statement. "We have a historic opportunity to end the scourge of statelessness within 10 years, and give back hope to millions of people. We cannot afford to fail this challenge."

The war in Syria has internally displaced millions of people, or forced them into refugee camps, where they could face the possibility of a stateless future. Tens of thousands of children have been born as refugees in exile, according to the UNHCR. Such children often face difficulties in proving their citizenship, though some recipient governments are addressing this issue. 

"We believe it's time to end this injustice," the UNHCR said in an open letter published Tuesday. "With enough courage we know it is possible. Governments can change their laws and procedures, and give stateless people their rights and a place to belong." 


UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie was among the first to sign the letter. She was joined by more than 20 celebrities and opinion leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Afghan-born novelist Khaled Hosseini.

The UNHCR says there's been progress in reducing statelessness in recent years. Three years ago, barely 100 countries had signed the two international statelessness treaties established in 1954 and 1961. The number of signatories now stands at 144. 

Meanwhile, legal changes have allowed about 4 million previously stateless people to gain citizenship or have their citizenship confirmed.

Guterres said the UNHCR's new campaign will build on that momentum. Its primary goals – outlined in a 10-point plan – include getting countries to grant nationality to stateless children and to offer citizenship to ethnic minorities.

Another concern: 27 countries deny women the right to pass nationality onto their children. Such restrictions can cause statelessness to span generations. 

Why are so many stateless?

Reuters reports that the largest stateless population is in Myanmar, where more than 1 million Rohingya, an ethnic minority, are refused nationality. Ivory Coast, Nepal, Latvia, and Thailand also have high numbers of stateless people. 

Statelessness exists for a variety of different reasons: from redrawn international boundaries to state-sanctioned discrimination. In the Dominican Republic, as many as 250,000 children born in the country, but of foreign descent – largely Haitian – were stripped of citizenship after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The international community lobbied President Danilo Medina to pass a law earlier this year that provided a path to citizenship for the descendants of some Haitian migrants, but the future of many Dominican-born children remains uncertain. As Ezra Fieser reported for the Monitor in August:

One of the reasons the new law doesn't help everyone is that many families never registered the birth of their children in the first place. The law gives them a period of 90 days – starting Aug. 4 – to prove they were born in the country, but the bureaucratic process could take months.

"These are the most marginalized of the marginalized people," says Manuel Robles, a spokesman for Dominicanos X Derecho, a collection of civil society groups working on the issue, referring to the population that is not automatically granted citizenship by President Medina's law. 

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