Dakar — At least 750,000 people are stateless in West Africa, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is calling for governments to do more to give or restore the nationality of stateless individuals, and improve national laws to prevent statelessness.
Many in the region are both stateless and refugees, said Emmanuelle Mitte, senior protection officer on statelessness with UNHCR in Dakar, but 80 percent of West Africans 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.
Statelessness not only stops people travelling across borders but restricts movement within countries such as Côte d'Ivoire or Mauritania, which are heavily check-pointed.
"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.
Stateless children are particularly vulnerable as there is little that they can do to fight for their cause.
Lack of birth registration is the first step to statelessness for many children: some 230 million under-fives globally have never been registered, according to UNICEF. West Africa suffers very low rates of birth registration: just 4 percent of infants are registered in Liberia; 16 percent in Chad, and 24 percent in Guinea-Bissau, making them among the world's worst 10 performers.
"Birth registration is more than just a right. It's how societies first recognize and acknowledge a child's identity and existence," said Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF deputy executive director in a late 2013 communique launching the report Every Child's Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration.
A significant proportion of West Africa's three million double orphans (children with no living parent) are stateless, as are almost all of the region's street children, known as talibés.
"People never look at the talibé issue from the standpoint of statelessness. It's the elephant in the room," said Brahmbhatt.
Emergencies and statelessness
Emergency-linked displacement causes stateless figures to spike. The Chadian government helped evacuate tens of thousands of Chadians from Central African Republic (CAR) into southern Chad where most are still living in temporary transit camps. But many arrived without papers to prove their identity and thus fear for their future. Youths who attended secondary schools in CAR told IRIN they had no papers to register at secondary schools in Chad.
Furthermore, many people living in transit camps are from Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, but have no papers. "You can't send them to a country where they will have no state," said Mitte.
Citizens of Niger (Nigeriens) who fled Boko Haram attacks on their villages in Nigeria to return to Niger face a similar predicament as most arrived with no papers. "People flee leaving their documents behind thinking they'll soon return or that they're safer left at home," said Mitte.
The Niger government demands a birth certificate as an initial document to certify Nigerien citizenship but almost all returnees IRIN spoke to in Diffa, eastern Niger, said they had left them behind. Dozens of interviewees said they fled quickly in the night as their houses were set on fire, and they fear their paperwork, alongside most of their possessions, has been burned or looted.
Statelessness usually occurs because people cannot provide the necessary documentation to prove their identity when state laws exist. But in some cases the laws are simply too weak to impose or do not sufficiently help protect citizens' rights.
Governments must adjust their laws to fit with the Conventions they have signed, notably the 1954 Convention relating to the status of Stateless Persons, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, said UNHCR. The gap between signing up to and applying international norms remains too wide, say campaigners.
A first step in reducing statelessness is to raise awareness that it exists, and of its impact. "People don't know about statelessness or to fight for it, so they don't ask for help," said Mitte. As such, UNHCR runs trainings on statelessness among legal experts, government officials, civil society groups and journalists to try to get the word out.
Progress on documenting individuals in West Africa is slow partly because there is more leeway for people to live in invisibility in a region dominated by a largely informal economy. In Europe stateless individuals would not last long before being imprisoned or deported, said one critic. But as West African economies and societies formalize legally and increase border restrictions linked to terrorism concerns, it will probably become more difficult to live without paperwork, said Mitte.
UNHCR advises governments on how to help individuals acquire identity documents and to include nationality issues in wider governance plans, among other activities.
Civil society groups play an important role in giving legal advice to individuals on how to obtain documentation but could do more, say campaigners. UNHCR urges NGOs to bring forward strategic legal cases.
Thus far just a few cases of statelessness have been brought up with national judicial bodies in Africa and only two cases have been examined by the African Commission, according to UNHCR. None have yet been brought to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court of justice.
UNHCR works closely with other UN agencies and with NGOs to address statelessness holistically. It works closely with UNICEF, given UNICEF's long-term efforts to boost birth registration, which are starting to pay off, said child protection specialist in West and Central Africa Mirkka Tuulia Mattila. In the region, Benin, Burkina Faso and Senegal have improved registration rates, introducing SMS registration systems and removing registration fees.
The key is to tie registration to all maternal and child health services, with registration as the grounding factor, she stressed.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]