Minority groups currently make up more than three-quarters of the world’s stateless population, according to a new United Nations report released on Nov. 3.

The U.N.’s 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons established the formal definition of stateless as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”

Rohingya Muslims are one example. Though they have lived in the Rakhine State of Burma (Myanmar) for centuries, they are not recognized as citizens by the government.

Discriminatory policies, coupled with violent actions against the Rohingya, have resulted in the recent exodus of thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh. A background briefing on the Rohingya by the Council of Foreign Relations is available here.

Stateless persons are often the targets of discriminatory practices – sometimes through formal government policies that restrict their rights, other times via informal actions that exclude and persecute them as minorities.

“Many of these people belong to a group that is an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority in the country in which they have often lived for generations,” the report said. “They are therefore distinct from the majority both because they are stateless and because they are minorities.”

Discrimination lies at the heart of this global challenge. It is a leading cause of statelessness and results in the further exclusion, isolation and persecution of minority groups.

This often leads to poverty (stateless persons cannot legally own property) and lack of access to basic services (such as education and healthcare).

They are often unable to obtain any formal identification documents without which they are unable to travel, obtain government services or obtain business loans, to name a few restrictions.

“Statelessness can be passed on from one generation to the next, with children denied nationality on the basis of their parents’ national or ethnic origins,” the report noted.

The report is based on the personal experiences of persons who are stateless, formerly stateless and at risk of becoming stateless.

It draws on interviews with 120 persons from the following groups: the Karana of Madagascar, Roma and other ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Pemba and the Makonde of Kenya.

“Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion or language is a recurrent cause of statelessness globally,” the U.N. said. “It creates a chasm between affected groups and the wider community, deepening their sense of being outsiders, of never belonging. Left unaddressed, the protracted exclusion of stateless minorities can build resentment, fear and – in the most extreme cases – lead to persecution, displacement, instability and insecurity.”

The report set out five actions necessary to help the world’s stateless population:

  1. Facilitate the naturalization or confirmation of nationality for stateless minority groups resident on the territory, provided that they were born or have resided there before a particular date, or have parents or grandparents who meet these criteria.
  2. Allow children to gain the nationality of the countries in which they were born if they would otherwise be stateless.
  3. Eliminate laws and practices that deny or deprive persons of nationality on the basis of discriminatory grounds, such as race, ethnicity, religion or linguistic minority status.
  4. Ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness.
  5. Eliminate procedural and practical obstacles to the issuance of nationality documentation to those entitled to it under law.

“Imagine being told you don’t belong because of the language you speak, the faith you follow, the customs you practice or the color of your skin. This is the stark reality for many of the world’s stateless,” said Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “Discrimination, which can be the root cause of their lack of nationality, also pervades their everyday lives – often with crippling effects. If we want to end statelessness, we must address this discrimination. We must insist on equal nationality rights for all.”

The full report is available here.

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