UNHCR: ′Statelessness should not exist in the 21st century′ | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.11.2014

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UNHCR: 'Statelessness should not exist in the 21st century'

Ten million people worldwide have no nationality, according to UNHCR. But as the UN refugee agency's Babar Baloch tells DW, the issue can be solved with just a few steps and political will.

On November 4, the UNrefugee agency UNHCR launched the "I Belong" campaign aimed at ending statelessness around the world within ten years. People without nationality are trapped in a legal limbo that prevents them from having access to education, health care, marriage and job opportunities during their lifetime. They also lack the human rights protections that go with nationality. "Statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime," said António Guterres, the UN refugee agency chief.

According to UNHCR, Myanmar has the largest stateless population in the world. While the East Asian country views the Muslim Rohingya minority as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Dhaka regards those crossing the border as illegal migrants from Myanmar. The UN considers the group one of the world's most persecuted peoples, facing widespread restrictions.

Babar Baloch, communications officer at UNHCR, says in a DW interview that given the fact that the rules for acquiring a nationality are made by governments, the successful resolution of statelessness depends enormously on their willingness to act, adding that where there is political will, these obstacles can be overcome.

DW: How many people in Asia have no nationality?

Babar Baloch UNHCR

Baloch: 'One of the bigger challenges in dealing with the issue is identifying the people who are stateless'

Babar Baloch: Exact numbers are not available, but according to estimates, the largest populations in Asia are located in Myanmar - where around one million people are stateless - and in Thailand where some 500,000 stateless people live. Other Asian countries include the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

One of the bigger challenges in dealing with this issue is identifying the people who are stateless, which is the reason why we can only provide estimates.

Why is the situation in Myanmar so troublesome?

The Rohingya population is not recognized as citizens of Myanmar. The nation's government considers them of Bengali origin, even though they have lived in that country for centuries. UNHCR remains deeply concerned by their situation. We have called upon the government in Naypyidaw to grant citizenship to those entitled to it under the 1982 Citizenship Law, but also to reform existing laws to allow the remainder of the population to acquire the nationality.

What are the main reasons behind this situation?

The main reasons are quite often linked to contentious political issues, as in case of the Rohingya. Moreover, state breakups can leave a big chunk of the population stateless, as in the case of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Other issues relate to countries having discriminatory laws in which mothers cannot pass on their nationality to their children. We still have around 27 countries in the world where this is the case. Incomplete population data, the lack of information and understanding of the problem are also key factors.

How are these people treated?

Statelessness is an anomaly that should not exist in the 21st century. These people live a terrible life. They don't have access to many of the basic amenities we take for granted, such as having a birth certificate, access to education and health care, finding a legal job or legally marrying someone. They aren't even entitled to a death certificate when they die. This an injustice that needs to end soon. Many groups are stateless because they face discrimination in society.

What is the international community doing to tackle this issue?

The UNHCR campaign aims to end statelessness within the next ten years. We know it is an ambitious goal, but one that is achievable. The recently launched campaign offers clear arguments and a practical route to end statelessness.

States can be parties to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and to the 1964 Convention related to the reduction of statelessness. Most importantly we want to work together with the international community and the governments to show the political will to address the issue.

Rohingya Verfolgung Myanmar

'UNHCR remains deeply concerned by the situation of the Rohingya. We have called upon governments to grant citizenship to those entitled to it, but also to reform existing laws'

Increased global awareness is already leading to a greater willingness among governments to discuss these problems and to review existing policies. UNHCR can provide technical advice and hands-on "operational" support as we do in dozens of countries each year. Sometimes we need to do so behind closed doors.

Governments set the rules for who acquires their nationality, so the successful resolution of the issue depends enormously on the governments' willingness to act. But we have found that where there is political will, these obstacles can be overcome. Many of the steps required cost relatively little, such as reforming nationality laws or changing documentation procedures.

Babar Baloch is communications officer at UN refugee agency, UNHCR.