25 September 2007 The United Nations refugee agency has welcomed as “major breakthroughs” recent decisions by Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka to grant citizenship to some three million people who live in the three Asian nations without any official identity.
“There has been a succession of positive developments in recent months concerning several groups of stateless people across the world – following many years of stagnation,” Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), announced today at a press briefing in Geneva.
The refugee agency, which also has a mandate for stateless people – those who for a variety of reasons do not have nationality or citizenship in the state where they are living, or anywhere else – believes there are as many as 15 million stateless people worldwide in at least 49 countries.
Among the recent developments is the decision of the Bangladeshi Government to confirm citizenship for at least 160,000 of the country's 300,000 Urdu-speaking population, also known as Biharis, who became stateless following the separation of Pakistan from India in 1947 and the subsequent civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Earlier this year in Nepal, some 2.6 million people received certificates of citizenship. Hundreds of mobile teams fanned out across Nepal's 75 districts, visiting even the most remote mountain villages, to ensure that certificates were issued to as many of the country's inhabitants as possible.
This followed an earlier campaign in Sri Lanka, where more than 190,000 people obtained citizenship over a 10-day period, after a change in the law that benefited the stateless descendants of tea pickers who had been brought to the country from British India nearly two centuries earlier.
Ms. Pagonis also noted movement on the issue in South America and Europe. Last Thursday, Brazil's Congress passed an important constitutional amendment granting nationality to children born to a Brazilian parent living abroad. Previously such children risked ending up stateless, and it is estimated that up to 200,000 children could benefit from this development.
Despite the recent advances, she noted that millions of others remain without an official identity, “living in the Kafkaesque world of the stateless.”
“In many cases they are unable to educate their children, benefit from government healthcare, get a legal job, travel abroad – or do any of a wide range of things which most of us take for granted,” she stated.