Why we need to end statelessness

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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One in 500 people globally has no nationality, experts said on Monday, a far higher estimate than that used by the United Nations which last month launched a major campaign to eradicate statelessness in a decade.

The number of stateless people worldwide likely exceeds 15 million, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion said in a report, which lifts the veil on some of the most invisible people on the planet.

“This is a powerful message about how pervasive the problem of statelessness is,” said Laura van Waas, co-director of the new think-tank.

“If every stateless person was counted together as a single country it would be the 70th largest.”

She said the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) estimate of 10 million stateless people left out 1.5 million stateless refugees and 3.5 million stateless Palestinians.

Without a nationality, stateless people are denied basic rights and benefits that most people take for granted, including access to healthcare, education and work. They often cannot own property, open a bank account or even get married.

Sometimes called “legal ghosts”, stateless people are vulnerable to rights abuses, detention and exploitation.

The report said there were “large and troubling holes” in global data and called for countries to boost efforts to count stateless people in their territory, including by incorporating questions in national census exercises.

The UNHCR has reliable data on just 3.5 million stateless in 75 countries, meaning statelessness is unmapped in more than half the world’s countries.

Countries with large stateless populations which lack clear data include India, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

Estimates for other countries may be limited, the report said. For example, U.N. data for Myanmar only records 810,000 people from the stateless Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, excluding hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and other stateless people elsewhere in the country.

People end up stateless for a host of reasons. Some fall through the cracks when countries break up and new ones are created. Others are stateless due to ethnic or religious discrimination or laws which prevent women passing their nationality to their children.

The report said better data would help the new UNHCR #ibelong campaign to end statelessness, but countries should not wait before reforming flawed laws and policies.

“Statelessness is an entirely man-made problem, making it both our collective responsibility but also within our collective power to resolve,” van Waas said.

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Emma Batha is a journalist specialising in humanitarian crises and women’s rights. She joined the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the Reuters international editing desk in London.

Image: A man stands near a fence. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun.

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