The United Nation refugee agency has kicked off a global campaign to end the plight of at least 10 million stateless people by 2024, a move described by observers as “too optimistic”.
A child is born stateless every 10 minutes, and over a third of the world’s stateless population are children, according to the UNHCR, which launched the “I Belong” campaign on Tuesday.
South Africa’s Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie have backed the campaign, signing – along with UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres and celebrities – an open letter calling for “10 million signatures to change 10 million lives”.
“Statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime,” Guterres said. “We have a historic opportunity to end the scourge of statelessness within 10 years, and give back hope to millions of people.”
Others who have signed include Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, opera singer Barbara Hendricks, South African musician Hugh Masekela, Afghan-born novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, and model Alek Wek.
Statelessness results from people falling through the cracks when new countries are created. Mothers in 27 countries are banned by law from passing on their nationalities to their offspring.
The UNHCR says this leads to what it calls “legal ghosts” often being denied rights to education or health services, and often leaving them at high risk of detention and exploitation, including slavery.
The 10-point plan, aiming to resolve major stateless crises, ensures no child is born stateless and remove gender discrimination from nationality laws.
Mathew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera that the plan is “too optimistic” but “can draw enough attention to the cause”.
Speaking from Thailand’s capital Bangkok, Smith added: “There is a lot that UN agencies and other organisations can do,” explaining that Rohingya Muslim refugees in Malaysia have to be detained in order for them to get registered at UN organisations.
“If this is the only way to get a UN card, then the system is surely broken, which makes this a good thing to start with,” Smith said.
The largest stateless population is in Myanmar where more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya are refused nationality. Other countries with high numbers of stateless people include Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Latvia, and the Dominican Republic.
“Without a nationality you are no better than a wild animal, wandering from place to place,” said Maryam Draogo, who recently acquired Ivorian citizenship. “You’re nobody, you belong nowhere.”
The UN has warned that the conflict in Syria could give rise to a new stateless population. Over 50,000 babies have been born to Syrian refugee women who have fled to neighbouring countries, with many not having birth certificates. Statelessness is also inherited.
Noting a shift in international attitudes towards statelessness, Guterres said that legislative and policy changes have enabled more than 4 million stateless to gain a nationality in the last decade.