Many in the region are both stateless and refugees, said Emmanuelle Mitte, senior protection officer on statelessness with UNHCR in Dakar, but the overwhelming majority of stateless persons in West Africa are stateless within their own country, lacking proof of the criteria required to guarantee their nationality.
Statelessness can block people’s ability to access health care, education or any form of social security. In the case of children who are separated from their families during emergencies, the lack of official documentation makes it much harder to reunite them, says the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Lack of official identification documents can mean a child enters into marriage, the labour market, or is conscripted into the armed forces, before the legal age.
Statelessness can also render people void of protection from abuse. Denied the right to work or move, they risk moving into the invisible underclass, said UNHCR’s West Africa protection officer, Kavita Brahmbhatt, who gave the example of a group of stranded non-documented Sierra Leonean migrants living in the slums of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, selling charcoal as they were too poor to do anything else, and too scared to return home for fear of being punished. “They became a member of Monrovia’s underclass,” she said.
|The 1954 Convention relating to the status of Stateless Persons aims to regulate their status and protect their human rights. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness outlines tools to avoid and resolve stateless cases.|
“Nationality is not just a document; it affects all of your rights as a citizen. Without a nationality you’re invisible, you don’t exist,” said Mitte. According to her, the 750,000 figure is “just the tip of the iceberg” - no studies have been undertaken to document the number officially. But UNHCR estimates at least 10 million people are stateless worldwide.
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