By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 20,000 people in West Africa have gained identity documents in the past year as part of a drive to eradicate statelessness, yet around one million in the region still have no nationality, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Stateless people, sometimes referred to as legal ghosts, are not accepted as citizens by any country, which means they are denied basic rights - leaving many unable to work or access healthcare - and are vulnerable to exploitation and traffickers.
Many West Africans are left stateless by laws which prevent women passing their nationality to their children and a lack of birth registrations, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
Around 22,000 people in Ivory Coast, Benin and Mali have received identity documents or birth certificates since the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) signed a declaration in January last year that it would end statelessness.
"Thousands of people who, until now, did not have a determined nationality, will come out of the shadows," said UNHCR regional representative for West Africa Liz Ahua.
"Thanks to the reforms currently being implemented in several states in West Africa, these men, women and children will finally be able to obtain a legal identity," she added.
Around one million people are thought to be stateless or at risk of statelessness in West Africa, according to the UNHCR.
Yet Ivory Coast, where statelessness helped fuel a decade of civil wars, is the only nation in the region to give an estimate - some 700,000 people - of the number of individuals living in limbo, so the figure could be far higher, experts say.
Several West African countries have adopted action plans to tackle the issue, the UNHCR said. Guinea, Burkina Faso, Liberia and Togo are reviewing their nationality laws, while Senegal is working on a law to protect children from being born stateless.
"Thousands of children in West Africa, such as street children, are not declared at birth... they can be easily exploited by human traffickers or forced to work," said UNHCR senior regional protection officer Emmanuelle Mitte.
There are an estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide with other big populations in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand.
The UNHCR launched a global #ibelong campaign to end statelessness within a decade in November 2014.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. 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 news.trust.org)