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UNHCR Launches Global Campaign to End Statelessness

FILE - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres.
FILE - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres.

The U.N. refugee agency reports at least 10 million people are stateless and every 10 minutes a baby is born stateless. Most stateless people have no legal rights in the countries where they live.

The UNHCR said legally, stateless people do not exist. They have no identity, no birth certificate and no documents. Therefore, they have no access to public health, education or legal employment.

In some countries, stateless people who die are not even granted a death certificate.

To combat that, the U.N. refugee agency announced Tuesday it is launching a global campaign to end statelessness within 10 years.

The so-called “I Belong” campaign aims to lift millions of people out of the legal limbo in which they live because they have no nationality and are deprived of all rights of citizenship.

Factors leading to statelessness

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said a number of factors contribute to statelessness. He said most situations arise from discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender.

“The most well-known and well-discussed case in the world is the Rohingyas in Myanmar with more than 1 million people, which, of course, are not granted citizenship or many of them - the majority of them were not granted citizenship," Guterres said.

"In Myanmar, they are considered to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh. But, if you go to Bangladesh, they will be considered to be illegal migrants from Myanmar, which means that the overwhelming majority of the Rohingyas have no rights, no citizenship at all," he said.

Other countries with large stateless populations are Ivory Coast, Thailand, Latvia and the Dominican Republic.

Statelessness also occurs when a country breaks up, as happened with the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia.

Restrictive laws denying women the right to pass their nationality on to their children on an equal basis with men is another major cause of statelessness. At present, 27 countries have such regulations.

The UNHCR said new risks of statelessness are emerging with the growing number of conflicts.

For example, it noted that wars in Central African Republic and Syria have forced millions of people to flee and become refugees. Tens of thousands of refugee children who have been born in exile are not registered at birth.

Syrian children

Guterres said this is a huge problem for Syrian refugee children born in Lebanon and Jordan.

He said Syria does not allow women to confer their nationality upon their children, and this could result in many babies unable to get registered at birth because their fathers may have been killed or gone missing.

“We have been working with the governments in order to facilitate the procedures to allow for Syrian children to be registered and there is indeed a lot of progress on that," Guterres said.

"And, we are hopeful that progress will allow us to make sure that in the future, all Syrian refugee children born in exile will be able to registered as Syrian citizens. ... At the present moment, 70 percent of the newborn Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries have not yet been registered," he said.

Guterres said statelessness is an anomaly in the 21st century and must be eradicated.

He said there has been an important shift in international attitudes regarding this tragic phenomenon, which makes him hopeful that this global campaign will succeed.

He said the UNHCR believed statelessness can be resolved with enough political will.