By Emma Batha
LONDON (AlertNet) - A major campaign to shine a spotlight on the world’s estimated 12 million stateless people has led to “a real sea change” in attitudes, with many countries now taking steps to tackle the problem, a U.N. expert says.
They include Senegal, Liberia and Benin which have promised to ditch discriminatory laws that bar women from passing on their nationality to their children – a key cause of statelessness in many countries.
Turkmenistan has started granting nationality to thousands of stateless people, Georgia has amended its citizenship legislation and Croatia and Serbia are helping stateless Roma obtain documents.
A stateless person is someone who is not recognised as a citizen by any country and has no rights to the benefits most of us take for granted. They are often unable to work, access healthcare or send their children to school.
Statelessness exacerbates poverty and can even fuel wars, yet the issue has gone largely neglected for decades.
Last year the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) made a concerted push to get the world to sit up and take notice of the world’s most invisible people.
The campaign culminated last month with a ministerial meeting in Geneva where 24 countries promised to join one or both U.N. conventions on statelessness. Many other governments pledged to address specific issues on their territory.
“It was the first time ever that we’ve seen so many states come forward and say that they are concerned about statelessness and are willing to take action to address it,” said Jorunn Brandvoll, legal officer at the UNHCR’s statelessness unit.
“For the first time this was a sentiment expressed by countries all over the world, in all regions,” she told AlertNet. “I think we will see real progress made in the year or two to come.”
Experts are particularly encouraged by Turkmenistan which has carried out a massive drive to map statelessness throughout the country, registering some 20,000 people. More than 3,000 were granted citizenship last year.
Brandvoll said Turkmenistan would set a positive example for other countries in the region where many people were left stateless after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Turkmenistan also hopes to raise greater awareness of statelessness among Muslim countries when it holds a large conference on refugees in May hosted by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Several Muslim countries in the Gulf region have large stateless populations. The issue hit the headlines last week when Kuwait cracked down hard on protests by stateless Bidoons asking for citizenship.
Campaigners hope to keep up the pressure on governments in 2012 with the publication of three key reports on statelessness in Europe, the United States and the Middle East/North Africa.
Eight countries joined one or both U.N. conventions in 2011 – a record number of accessions for any given year. They are:
- Panama, Nigeria and Benin - both the 1954 convention relating to stateless persons and the 1961 on the reduction of statelessness
- Philippines, Georgia and Turkmenistan - the ‘54 convention
- Croatia and Serbia - the ‘61 convention
Brandvoll praised Georgia for amending its citizenship legislation, improving its civil registration system and establishing a stateless determination procedure.
The UNHCR also hopes other countries will follow the example of the three West African countries which have promised to get rid of legislation preventing mothers passing on their nationality.
At least 30 countries only allow fathers to transfer their citizenship to their children. This means that where a woman is married to a foreigner or a stateless person her children often end up stateless. Experts say this is one of the key factors perpetuating statelessness.
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