The U.N. refugee chief has called on countries to end the plight of some 12 million stateless people caught in what he described as "limbo," denied basic human rights because no country will grant them citizenship.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said governments had neglected a problem that was prominent after World War II due to the example of famous stateless people such as physicist Albert Einstein and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel.
"It has been completely forgotten," Guterres told The Associated Press. "We need to make sure that people understand that this is a very serious problem."
The global refugee agency launched a campaign Thursday to highlight the discrimination suffered by stateless people, including being denied the right to employment, education, housing and health care. Many also suffer harassment at the hands of police when they are unable to prove their right to residency in a country.
The problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, the agency said.
In Myanmar, some 800,000 people from the predominantly Muslim ethnic group of Rohingya are denied citizenship, while Thailand has more than half a million stateless people, including members of small hill tribes.
Kuwait is home to about 93,000 descendants of wandering desert tribesmen known as bidoun _ Arabic for "without" _ who have recently become increasingly vocal in their demand for citizenship rights.
"These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo," Guterres said. "Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalizing whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict."
He cited the recent separation of north and south Sudan, which has left thousands of people in the north without citizenship and stoked ethnic tensions in the border state of South Kordofan.
Another reason for statelessness is the practice of some countries not to automatically grant women the right to confer citizenship to their children, said Guterres.
UNHCR is urging countries to join the U.N.'s Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. So far, few have done so. Since it was launched in 1961 only 38 of the world's 193 countries have ratified the treaty.
While the United States hasn't adopted the convention, its laws are sufficient to prevent new cases of statelessness occurring within U.S. borders, said Guterres. But he urged the U.S. government to improve its methods for counting stateless persons as no reliable figures exist for the number who have entered and are now living in the United States.