Without citizenship, many of these people are denied rights which most people take for granted, such as access to education, healthcare and formal employment. Children are particularly at risk when they have no nationality. The Open Society Foundations estimates around 5 million children are stateless worldwide, which leaves them especially vulnerable to exploitation such as slave labour and prostitution.
This week, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will launch a campaign to highlight the problem of the world’s stateless people. In December, a meeting for government ministers will also be held where countries will be encouraged to join the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This stipulates that nationality must be granted to any stateless person born in a country’s territory. Currently, just 35 countries have signed the convention, though statelessness remains a huge issue globally.
The UNHCR is particularly concerned about countries where mothers cannot pass nationality onto their children. This means that if the father is not a citizen or is absent, the child will not be granted citizenship. This is the case in Nepal, where an estimated 800,000 people are without citizenship certificates according to official figures, though the actual number could be more than double that.
And the situation could get worse. New citizenship rules have been proposed which would only grant children Nepalese nationality if both parents are Nepali. (Currently only one other country – Bhutan – demands both parents are nationals.) If this change goes ahead in Nepal, UN officials and human rights groups warn that millions of children from ‘mixed’ marriages will become stateless. This will leave them without access to basic rights in a country where over 80 per cent of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day. With no official documents, stateless Nepalese children will not be able to go to college or hold a driving licence, both of which affect their work prospects. And as adults, they will not enjoy basic rights such as being able to vote in elections, own land or have entitlement to a state pension.
As part of a series of special reports on the issue of statelessness, Alertnet spoke to one eighteen year-old in Nepal who lacks citizenship, because her father is absent and only men can transfer nationality to their children. She told the news agency “I have not been given the citizenship certificate by the country I was born and am living [in]”. Nina faces an uncertain future, since she is unable to study at college or travel abroad to find work (since she has no passport). The teenager sums up her situation sadly by saying “I don’t have any identity”.