U.N. refugee agency moves to wipe out statelessness

LONDON — The U.N. refugee agency launched an ambitious campaign Tuesday to wipe out statelessness in the next decade with the goal of preventing millions from spending their entire lives without legal documentation.

The goal is to focus attention on people who are not recognized in their countries and do not have birth certificates, identity papers or other documents, and to prevent babies born to refugees from being denied legal papers.

That is happening increasingly with children born to pregnant mothers who are fleeing the warfare in Syria and giving birth in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message backing the campaign that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that nationality is a basic right of all people.

“Without nationality, stateless people are often deprived of other basic human rights, such as going to school, getting a job, getting married or registering the birth of a child,” Ban said. “They are sentenced to a life of marginalization and invisibility.”

The high profile campaign, backed in an open letter Tuesday by actress Angelina Jolie and others, should help the estimated 10 million people living in the hellish limbo of statelessness, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, told The Associated Press.

“We are talking about communities that are hidden, that are discriminated against in these countries that do not appear in the global media except when the situation is very dramatic,” he said.

Secretary-General Ban urged people around the world to sign the UNHCR letter to end statelessness.

“The goal is 10 million signatures to help change 10 million lives,” he said.

Guterres said statelessness creates pain that is almost impossible for most people to imagine because they have never experienced it.

“If you listen, it is a testimony of despair,” he said. “I met people who told me, ‘We live like wild animals, no one recognizes us, we have no legal existence, no legal identity, and our children will be in the same situation.”’

He cited five major trouble spots, including Myanmar, where more than 1 million Rohingya live without legal status, and the Dominican Republic, where the Supreme Court recently stripped nationality from the descendants of Haitian migrants. There are some 700,000 migrant descendants who are not recognized as citizens in Ivory Coast, many Russian speakers are treated as non-citizens in Latvia, and about 500,000 people from various communities do not have nationality in Thailand, he said.

Guterres said there has been some progress on these fronts, and that legal changes have allowed some 4 million previously stateless people to legalize their situations in recent years.

In Myanmar, for example, he said the UNHCR has worked with Rohingya to take advantage of recent changes in the law.

“The nationality law is not perfect, but we don’t play God telling them the law is not perfect,” he said. “There is advocacy and cooperation with the government, and individual support for those who try to solve their situation.”

In addition, he said, 27 countries have recently signed the international convention on the rights of stateless people.

“We have to build on this momentum,” he said.

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