THE HAGUE The Netherlands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Opera singer Barbara Hendricks lent her voice on Tuesday to a global campaign to end statelessness, calling for an end to the suffering of 10 million "ghost" people.
The U.S.-born soprano said she had been moved to tears by the stories told by former stateless people on the second day of the world's first international forum on statelessness.
Hendricks said it was important for everyone to belong somewhere and that no one should be "walking around like a ghost".
Stateless people are not recognised as nationals by any country and deprived of the rights most people take for granted. They often live on the margins of society where they are vulnerable to exploitation.
"I want to be the voice of those who really have no voice," Hendricks told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Hague forum which has brought together 300 experts.
"The solutions will come from the concerned states, but public opinion plays an enormous role. Politicians usually don't do things for people who can't vote for them, but public opinion tends to move them to do things for those people."
The singer said her own experience of growing up in the racially segregated southern United States in the 1950s had shown her what it's like to be a second class citizen.
"I was in tears listening to some of the stories (today)," said Hendricks, who has sung on all the major opera stages in the world including the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. "Everyone's a human being, and we're all born free and equal in dignity and in rights – and that's the bottom line for me."
Srinuan Saokhamnuan, a young Thai woman who spent the first 23 years of her life stateless, told the forum how she had been constantly rejected and humiliated but had, against the odds, eventually gained a degree in the United States.
Juliana Deguis Pierre, described a long battle with the authorities in the Dominican Republic, which has denied citizenship to some 210,000 people of Haitian descent like her.
Hendricks, the U.N. refugee agency's longest-serving goodwill ambassador, said she had only recently become fully aware of the magnitude of the stateless problem - an issue which has been neglected for decades.
"Ten million people who don't have citizenship somewhere! It was just unimaginable for me," she said.
Hendricks, now a Swedish citizen, was so moved that she asked to work on an ambitious U.N. campaign to eradicate statelessness in a decade, which will launch in November.
But she admitted it would be difficult to raise public awareness. "It's not sexy and it's going to be tough, but it's just the kind of challenge that I like," she said.
Countries with large stateless populations include Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Kuwait and Russia. Stateless people have little or no access to education, health or most jobs. Without citizenship they usually cannot travel, get a driving licence, open a bank account or even get married.
But Hendricks said a trip to Ivory Coast in June had shown that change can happen.
"There are people who are willing to change their minds about things that have been long-held ideas about who is who, and who forms our nation," she added.
There are an estimated 700,000 stateless people in Ivory Coast where questions of citizenship helped fuel civil war. Recent legal reforms allow those with deep roots in the country to apply for nationality.
Hendricks said she had previously planned to visit Myanmar to discuss the plight of its large stateless Rohingya population with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi whom she had met in secret in the early 1990s when the opposition leader was under house arrest.
However, the trip was judged too risky.
Editing by Maria Caspani