By Emma Batha
LONDON, Oct 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Film star Cate Blanchett called on Monday for the world to end the "devastating" plight of millions of people with no nationality amid warnings that rising xenophobia is stymieing efforts to meet a 2024 deadline for eradicating statelessness.
The double Oscar-winner said statelessness prevented people fulfilling their potential, and was a "heartbreaking" waste of human talent.
Blanchett threw her weight behind the global #Ibelong campaign to end statelessness as she addressed an intergovernmental meeting in Geneva aimed at dramatically escalating progress.
Her support will boost attention on an issue that has long been neglected.
Not recognised as nationals of any country, stateless people are often deprived of basic rights like education and healthcare, and risk exploitation and detention.
Blanchett held up her own passport, credit card and Medicare card as she urged ministers and government officials to imagine how difficult life would be if they had no documents.
"It's a condition of invisibility," she said. "Stateless people are unseen and unheard."
Blanchett, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), interviewed Maha Mamo, a formerly stateless activist who has become a torchbearer for #Ibelong, describing her as an "extraordinary beacon of hope".
The activist, who speaks five languages, told delegates how her hopes of studying medicine and joining a Lebanese basketball team were crushed because she had no papers.
The Geneva meeting comes halfway through the #Ibelong initiative launched in 2014.
But the task ahead is monumental. Only about 200,000 people acquired citizenship during the first half of the campaign, barely making a dent in the overall number.
And U.N. officials admit the total may now be even higher than in 2014 because of increasing displacement triggered by crises in Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, which has raised the risk of many children growing up stateless.
There is also no solution in sight for many of the largest groups of stateless people including the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh following an upsurge in violence.
U.N. officials are also keeping a close eye on India, where 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam have been left off a register of citizens, stoking concerns that many could become stateless.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said global awareness of the repercussions of statelessness was growing and they had received more than 170 pledges of action ahead of the meeting.
But he warned that "damaging forms of nationalism" and the "manipulation of anti-refugee and migrant sentiment" were putting progress at risk.
DOGS HAVE MORE RIGHTS
People end up stateless for a host of reasons including migration, flawed citizenship laws and ethnic discrimination. Others fall through the cracks when countries break up.
Aside from Myanmar, there are big stateless groups in Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Kuwait and some former Soviet countries.
Stateless people have previously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they feel stigmatised and forgotten.
"We've had people telling us, 'dogs are more important than I am'," said Melanie Khanna, head of the UNHCR's statelessness section.
"People feel totally scarred and isolated. They often say, 'I thought it was just me'. It sends chills down your spine."
Almost all countries are represented at the Geneva meeting, with some 1,000 delegates including a number of ministers. U.N. officials say the pledges will provide a roadmap for accelerating the campaign.
In July, Kyrgyzstan made history when it became the first country to officially end statelessness. U.N. officials believe Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan could also meet the 2024 deadline.
Thailand, where nearly 479,000 people are stateless, including members of ethnic hill tribes in the northern border regions, is also stepping up action.
The issue made international headlines last year during rescue efforts to save a young Thai football team trapped in a flooded cave.
During the drama it emerged that several of the boys and their coach were stateless. They were granted citizenship after their ordeal.
But resolving statelessness is not just a human rights issue. Statelessness has fuelled conflict and displacement in both Myanmar and Ivory Coast.
Khanna said there was a growing recognition that resolving statelessness was a "win-win" because it was in governments' interests to have everybody feel invested in the society they lived in and motivated to contribute.
The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of global pledges on tackling poverty, inequality and other ills with an overall ambition to "to leave no one behind", have helped shift attitudes, Khanna said.
"The SDGs have allowed us to talk about this whole area as a development issue and not just a human rights one," she added.
"This makes a lot of sense because you don't want disenfranchised, impoverished people on your territory."
Khanna said an increasing number of countries were changing their nationality laws and policies to prevent future generations ending up in limbo.
Colombia, for example, has announced it will give citizenship to thousands of children born to Venezuelan migrants to prevent them growing up stateless.
Other countries have scrapped discriminatory laws that prevent women passing their citizenship to their children - a major cause of statelessness.
The impact of such laws has been clearly seen during the Syrian war with many displaced mothers unable to obtain documents for their children where the father is dead or absent.
Iran became the latest country to pass reforms last week.
There has also been a flurry of countries joining the U.N. conventions on protecting stateless people and preventing statelessness.
The 1961 convention stipulates that a state must grant nationality to anyone born on its territory who would otherwise be stateless - a safeguard that would wipe out most new cases of statelessness if adopted by all countries.
Blanchett appealed to all nations to give stateless people "their basic human right to belong", adding that solutions were often straightforward. "It is a man-made problem and it is solvable," she said. (Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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