By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Better laws, concrete data and widespread education are needed to tackle the "disease" of statelessness that blights the lives of more than a million people across West Africa, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
With no nationality, stateless people are denied basic human rights and are often unable to work, have access healthcare or send their children to school. These "legal ghosts" are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including slavery and prostitution, the UNHCR said.
"Statelessness is like a disease, you pass it on to your children. If you are born stateless, you start life in poverty and will never have the means to break this vicious cycle," said UNHCR senior regional protection officer Emmanuelle Mitte.
One year ago, the UNHCR launched a campaign to end the plight of at least 10 million stateless people with no country to call home within a decade.
Many people in West Africa are left stateless by laws which prevent women passing their nationality to their children and a lack of birth registrations, Mitte said. An absence of data and education hinder efforts to combat statelessness, she said.
Ivory Coast, where large-scale statelessness helped fuel almost a decade of civil wars, is the only country in West Africa to provide an estimate - about 700,000 people - of the number of individuals living in limbo, according to the UNHCR.
"So the one million figure for West Africa is just the tip of the iceberg," Mitte told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Legal reforms in 2013 gave many long-term Ivory Coast residents the chance for citizenship, but only some 110,000 people applied before a deadline that expired in June.
The lack of applications reflects the need to raise awareness, reach people in rural areas and help those who are not educated to apply for citizenship, Mitte said.
"Nationality is seen as a legal issue, but it is a passport for human rights. The less education you have, the less likely you will be able to defend yourself... you need the state to protect your rights," she said.
People end up stateless in West Africa for a host of complex historical, social and legal reasons - including migration, flawed citizenship laws and religious and ethnic discrimination.
The world's worst recorded Ebola outbreak disrupted birth registrations in Liberia, leaving many newborns and abandoned children at risk of statelessness, Mitte said.
Birth registrations fell to 48,000 in 2014 from 79,000 in 2013, before the onset of the virus, and only 700 children had their births registered between January and May this year, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
Statelessness contributes to the flow of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe in rickety boats in search of a better life, Mitte said.
Yet it stops many people from traveling across borders and leaves undocumented migrants exposed to "horrific treatment" such as indefinite detention because they cannot show they belong to a country to return to, she added.
"There is also the phenomenon of human ping-pong," she said, citing the example of someone who moves from Ivory Coast to Senegal to Germany and is sent back and forth among the countries.
Yet Mitte believes the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which signed a declaration to end statelessness in January, has made good progress.
Several nations have adopted action plans to tackle the issue, while Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo are reviewing laws which do not let women pass down their nationality.
"I recall speaking to a young man in Senegal who gained his nationality, and what he said has stayed with me," Mitte said.
"He said: 'I am proud to have the documents, it is the documents that make the man'."
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)