Star casts spotlight on invisible people

| REUTERS 8 Oct 2019

Australian film star Cate Blanchett is backing a global campaign to end the plight of an estimated 10 million people with no nationality amid warnings that rising xenophobia is stymieing efforts to meet a 2024 deadline for eradicating statelessness.

The double Oscar winner addressed an event in Geneva aimed at persuading governments to dramatically escalate progress in the campaign called #Ibelong.

Blanchett's involvement is seen as major lift in trying to turn the spotlight on some of the world's most invisible people, though such efforts are the reason she is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Not recognized as nationals of any country, stateless people are often deprived of basic rights like education and health care and risk exploitation and detention.

Blanchett, 50, whose Geneva effort included her interviewing Maha Mamo, a formerly stateless activist who has become a torchbearer for #Ibelong, recently visited Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. She has also met displaced Syrian families in the Middle East.

When United Nations chief Antonio Guterres launched the #Ibelong initiative in 2014 during his time as head of the UNHCR, he described statelessness as a "cancer" that must be excised.

But the task is monumental. Only about 200,000 people acquired citizenship during the first half of the campaign, barely making a dent in the numbers. And UN officials admit the total may now be even higher than in 2014 because of increasing displacement triggered by crises in Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere.

There is also no solution in sight for many of the largest groups of stateless people including the Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of them fled to Bangladesh following an upsurge in violence.

Experts on statelessness also spoke in Geneva of "storm clouds on the horizon" as forced displacement, xenophobia and populism complicate efforts to meet the 2024 deadline.

They are keeping a close eye on India, where 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam have been left off a register of citizens, stoking concerns that many could become stateless.

People end up stateless for a host of historical, social and legal reasons including migration, flawed citizenship laws and ethnic discrimination.

Others fall through the cracks when countries break up.

Aside from Myanmar and Bangladesh, there are big stateless groups in Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Kuwait and some former Soviet countries.

And stateless people feel stigmatized and forgotten.

"We've had people tell us 'dogs are more important than I am,' " said Melanie Khanna, head of the UNHCR's statelessness section.

Despite slow progress on reducing numbers, Khanna said there is far greater global awareness of statelessness than five years ago.

In July, Kyrgyzstan made history when it became the first country to officially end statelessness, and UN officials believe Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan could meet the 2024 deadline.

Thailand, where nearly 479,000 people are stateless including members of ethnic hill tribes in northern border regions, is also stepping up action. The issue made world headlines last year with rescue efforts to save a young football team trapped in a flooded cave.

During the drama it emerged several of the boys and their coach were stateless.

They were granted Thai citizenship after their ordeal.

Khanna said there is a growing recognition that resolving statelessness is a "win-win" because it is in governments' interests to have everybody feel invested in the society where they live.

"This makes a lot of sense because you don't want disenfranchised, impoverished people on your territory," she added.

So an increasing number of countries are changing their nationality laws and policies to prevent generations ending up in limbo, Khanna said.

Colombia, for example, has announced it will give citizenship to thousands of children born to Venezuelan migrants to prevent them growing up stateless.

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