NEW DELHI, Aug 23 (AlertNet) - Up to two million children in the impoverished Himalayan nation of Nepal are at risk of becoming stateless -- without country or nationality -- if the government approves strict citizenship criteria in its new constitution, U.N. officials warn.
Nepal is emerging from a decade-long civil conflict with Maoist rebels that killed 13,000 people and devastated the economy. After a 2006 peace deal, the monarchy was abolished and a special assembly charged with drafting the country's first republican constitution.
But U.N. officials say some provisions in the proposed new charter discriminate against the hundreds of thousands of mixed marriages in Nepal by granting children citizenship only if both parents are Nepali.
"As it stands, the rules are extremely restrictive when it comes to transmitting citizenship by descent," said a senior U.N. official in Kathmandu, who asked to be named.
"It can be one or two million children from these hundreds of thousands of mixed marriages who would be stateless. But it would not just stop there ... the children of these people would also be stateless. It would continue like this for generations."
If approved, the rules would make Nepal only the second country in the world, after its tiny and remote South Asian neighbor Bhutan, to demand both parents be nationals for a child to gain citizenship.
Furthermore, even if a foreign spouse wishes to take Nepali citizenship, rules dictate they can only be eligible after 15 years of legal residence in Nepal, leaving their children in a protracted state of limbo.
With no official documents, children of mixed marriages will have no right to a college education, a passport or driving license, to land, government pensions, to voting or to participating in elections. They would also face difficulties seeking jobs.
UNHCR will launch a campaign on Thursday to highlight the plight of the world's up to 15 million statelessness people, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1961 U.N. convention on reducing statelessness.
The convention, of which Nepal is not a signatory, explicitly states in its first article that nations must grant nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.
Government figures from 1995 estimated there were 800,000 people in Nepal without citizenship certificates, although experts believe more than double this number are now "undocumented."
Many are women, who have for decades faced restrictive citizenship rules in this conservative, patriarchal country where only men have the right, de facto, to transfer nationality to their children.
Those living in the Terai region -- home to nearly half of Nepal's 28 million people -- are most at risk, aid workers say.
The Madheshi people of Terai are similar in language, dress, ethnicity and culture to Indians across the border in the adjacent states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Many migrate from either side to work as farmers or to trade and both peoples share strong family ties, often connected through marriage.
"We want to ensure that the rules relating to citizenship in the new constitution are not going to lead to new cases of statelessness," said Mark Manly, head of UNHCR's stateless unit. "If the rules are very restrictive ... then all of a sudden you can have lots of people who are left out."
Some Nepali politicians have defended the new rules, saying Nepal -- a small country boxed in between Asian giants India and China -- needs to protect the interests of its people from the growing dominance of others in the region.
"We need to tighten the rules otherwise a small country like ours cannot take the pressure from big neighbors," said Pradeep Gwayali, a parliamentarian and a member of the panel which recommended the new rules, acknowledging it was to discourage Indians and Chinese from seeking Nepali nationality.
"No one will be stateless and children from mixed marriages can apply for citizenship after 15 years or they can opt for the citizenship of the country of their foreign parent."
(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu and Emma Batha in London; Editing by Rebekah Curtis and Sonya Hepinstall