THE HAGUE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations is to launch an ambitious campaign to eradicate statelessness within a decade, ending the plight of some 10 million people referred to as 'legal ghosts' or 'invisibles', a senior U.N. official said on Monday.
"It's an anachronism that we have in the 21st century people who fall outside the realm of nation states," said Volker Türk, head of international protection at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
Türk said there was "something deeply immoral and unethical" about perpetuating the human suffering that goes with statelessness. He also warned that protracted stateless situations could provide a powder keg for conflict.
He was addressing some 300 experts from around the world, who have gathered in The Hague, the Netherlands, for the first international forum on statelessness.
Stateless people are not recognized as citizens by any country and typically have no rights to the benefits most people take for granted. They are often unable to work, access healthcare or send their children to school. Without citizenship they are vulnerable to exploitation, including slavery and prostitution.
There are large stateless populations in Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Kuwait and some of the countries that made up the former Soviet Union.
Dipu Jaisi Chettri, a stateless man, told how being stateless meant a lifetime of rejection.
"It feels like being born was a crime," said Dipu, who was forced out of Bhutan, grew up in India and now lives in Britain.
"When you say you are stateless some people treat you like you are from a different world. Living in India it was like you did not exist at all ... I used to think I was really worthless because you get a very, very negative vibe from people."
People end up stateless for a host of complex historical, social and legal reasons – including migration, flawed citizenship laws and ethnic discrimination. Others fall through the cracks when countries break up.
Türk said many metaphors were used to describe the stateless - 'nowhere people', 'legal ghosts', 'the invisibles' - but they failed to convey the anguish of living without a nationality.
"They suffer human rights violations on a daily basis and have suffered hardships that none of us can ever imagine," he added.
Türk said statelessness not only harmed individuals but damaged society, and could contribute to conflict.
"We know that if stateless situations are left unaddressed they can provide the perfect powder keg for trouble," he added.
In Myanmar, violence against the Rohingya - a Muslim group denied citizenship by the government - has triggered an exodus of tens of thousands of people. Questions around identity also helped fuel war in Ivory Coast.
The UNHCR, which is co-hosting the forum with the Statelessness Programme of Tilburg University, will launch its campaign to end statelessness on Nov 4.
"Some people would say we're a bit mad for having these aspirations," Türk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the 10-year deadline. "It’s a tall order, that’s for sure, but it's not unrealistic."
More countries have acceded to the two U.N. conventions on statelessness in the last four years than during the 40 years following their adoption, he added.
A dozen countries have also amended discriminatory citizenship laws that prevent women passing their nationality to their children – a big cause of statelessness.
Editing by Ros Russell