Invisible and vulnerable, world′s stateless face bleak future | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 29.08.2011
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Invisible and vulnerable, world's stateless face bleak future

The UN has launched a campaign to highlight the discrimination suffered by some 12 million stateless people worldwide. Without identification, they're often stuck in legal limbo and denied basic rights.

Oftoboy Kadibayeva stands outside her destroyed home in Kyrgyzstan

Oftoboy Kadibayeva became stateless after her passport was destroyed during riots in Kyrgyzstan

In June last year, southern Kyrgyzstan was battered by fierce inter-ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Hundreds of people were killed, tens of thousands were turned into refugees and a number of businesses and homes were looted.

One of those affected by the violence was Oftoboy Kadibayeva. Her home and personal belongings were completely destroyed in the unrest. Crucially, the mother of four and her husband, also lost their Soviet passports dating back from the time that Kyrgyzstan was a part of the Soviet Union. Without identification, the two became displaced overnight in their own country.

The lack of papers plunged Kadibayeva's family into a nightmarish legal limbo. She was unable to acquire documents for her children, one of whom is mentally disabled.

Oftoboy Kadibayeva with her daughter on the steps of her home in Kyrgyzstan

Oftoboy Kadibayeva has been struggling to get documents for her children

"Since I am a stateless person and do not have a passport, I have problems with updating proper documents for my children. Second, my daughter's social allowance documents are not valid anymore. I have to renew them, but since I do not have a passport, this is an issue," Kadibayeva told Deutsche Welle.

The 34-year-old was also unable to claim property rights over a new home which the UNHCR helped her to rebuild after the violence. The family has been effectively shut out from schooling, welfare benefits and healthcare.

"I cannot get a birth certificate for my youngest child. Since I am a stateless person and have no documents, I do not have proper access to medical care," Kadibayeva said.

Living in the shadows

Kadibayeva's plight is shared by an estimated 12 million people in the world who are not citizens of any country. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say they can be denied basic rights such as jobs, housing, education and healthcare because they can't prove who they are or where they are from.

Other hurdles include being unable to participate in elections or travel abroad. They have difficulties receiving pensions or registering marriages, births and property.

The UN has now launched a global campaign to highlight the discrimination suffered by stateless people. It's also meant to encourage countries to sign on to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and create laws to grant status to such people. Since it was launched in 1961, only 38 of the world's 193 nations have ratified the treaty.

Illegal refugees in Morocco

Stateless people often live on the margins of society

Erika Feller, the UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, said the problem isn't high up on the international agenda because stateless people often live in the shadows, in a kind of no man's land. They are effectively invisible.

"People who are stateless people, that is people who do not have an effective nationality or a country that is prepared to exercise protection and consular services on their behalf, they are exceedingly vulnerable people," Feller told Deutsche Welle.

"They are a hidden population quite often."

Unnoticed even in death

Unable to exercise their basic human rights, stateless people are often highly vulnerable to a vast catalogue of abuses. Feller said being stateless increases the risk of children being trafficked. They easily disappear because there's no record of them.

In addition, stateless people are vulnerable to slavery, prostitution, police harassment, recruitment into the armed forces, forced labor and other abuse.

"Again, without the protection of the law, protection that a state responsible for you gives you, you are fair game," Feller said.

With few resources and advocates drawing attention to the issue, even the passing of stateless people often goes unnoticed. They are often not even issued a death certificate.

"You can die as a stateless person and there is no record of your death because you do not exist and therefore your death is an irrelevancy," Feller said.

Conflict, discrimination big factors

The UNHCR say the problem of statelessness is particularly acute in South-East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. But pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world, according to the group.

The UN pinpoints several reasons for statelessness. People can lose their citizenship when a lack of government infrastructure or conflict makes it impossible to get identification documents.

Racial and ethnic discrimination is another factor. That includes the Faili Kurds in Iraq and the Rohingya minority in Burma which is excluded from citizenship. The lack of gender equality in citizenship laws too remains a hurdle. The practice in some countries such as Morocco, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, not to automatically grant women the right to confer citizenship to their children often compounds the problem of statelessness.

Oftoboy Kadibayeva

Oftoboy Kadibayeva hopes to become a full-fledged citizen of Kyrgyzstan once she gets a new passport

One of the biggest factors in people losing citizenship is the dissolution of states, the formation of new ones and the redrawing of boundaries.

The head of the UNHCR's statelessness unit, Mark Manly noted that in the early 1990s, more than half of the world's stateless lost their nationality because of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Federation.

But he explained that things have since improved. "I think it is important to point out that indeed many, many people, who were originally stateless, have acquired the nationality of one of these successor states," Manly told Deutsche Welle.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the figure would be over 500,000 people since 2003, he said, citing statistics by the Russian authorities.

A ray of hope

For now, Oftoboy Kadibayeva is still living on the margins of Kygryz society. But, she hopes, not for too long.

Kadibayeva is being helped by a non-governmental organization working with the UNHCR to get new documentation. It's also providing her with legal aid.

"I have some little hope to get missing documents, to get my passport," she told Deutsche Welle. "And, I hope that when I get my passport, my life will improve."

Author: Lisa Schlein/ Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Saroja Coelho

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