29/08/2011 18:34 BST | Updated 29/10/2011 06:12 BST

No Country for Stateless People

In many fortunate societies the state plays the role of both protector and provider. Even in the most corrupt and calamitous nations, people have the state to turn to as the last resort. The state, howsoever feeble and fragmented, instils a sense of commonality for its people, in suffering and in all triumphs.

Then what about the people who are citizens of no state? Who do they turn to? Where do they belong? These are questions worth asking as the UN marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of the Stateless today.

More than 12 million people across the world, 6 million of them believed to be children, cannot prove who they are and where they come from. They have no country. They are stateless. Imagine the entire combined population of Ireland, New Zealand, Botswana and Bahrain - that is the number of people who have no legal status, no nationality and as a result, limited or no rights.

The human consequences of statelessness are tragic. Stateless people are technically not citizens of any country and consequentially they are often denied basic rights to employment, education, housing and health care. Imagine a situation where you cannot open a bank account; your children cannot be enrolled in school; you cannot get married legally; you cannot own a property; you do not even exist on paper.

From political sensitivities to ethnic discrimination, conflict, migration and breaking-up of states, there are numerous reasons why millions have been rendered without a state, forced to live in a legal limbo.

Communities of ethnic Rohingya people in Myanmar, the Bidoon in the Gulf States and a number of hill tribes in Thailand, have been struggling for decades to gain citizenship of the country they are born in and living in for generations. In the Nineties the states created by the dissolution of Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia left hundreds of thousands stateless, mostly marginalised ethnic and social groups. Of these, tens of thousands are still without a citizenship of any country.

The problem of statelessness is not just limited to the developing world or to nations routinely reproached for their human rights record. According to the UNHCR - the UN Refugee Agency, even though the situation is most severe in South East Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, the pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world. This includes some of the most advanced and liberal nations in the world. How many people know that there are over 9,000 stateless people in Sweden, about 8,000 people without citizenship in Germany, or nearly 1,400 people with no nationality in Japan?

What is worse is that statelessness can be self-perpetuating with women and children among the most vulnerable to face the brunt of the situation. Children born to parents with no legal status and identity become stateless from the moment they are born. Generation after generation thousands are forced into a life of deprivation, extreme poverty and destitution as they survive on the margins of society as some of the most excluded people in the world.

You only have to ask 17-year-old Joe of Akha hill ethnic tribe in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, about the daily strife of living without an identity. Born stateless to parents who were themselves stateless at the time of his birth, Joe lost out on free education in his childhood, worked as a child labour to support his poor family and regularly faced police interrogations.

Even when his parents managed to get Thai citizenship after decades of wait, Joe was left out as neither his parents nor he could prove their relation. With the help of a DNA-matching project by child rights organisation Plan International, Joe could prove his genetic relation to his parents and finally received his Thai identity card just weeks ago. Plan has been actively advocating for universal birth registration as it ensures that all children are accounted for, and it is a first step towards identity and basic rights for all.

Although Joe lost out on chances in the formative years of his life, he still can be considered fortunate when compared to others who are still stateless. While the majority live in the shadows of the societies around them, some even face long periods of detention, because they have no means to prove their identity. From legal wrangles to pure prejudice, case studies of stateless people reveal untold stories of human suffering and exclusion. "I just want to go home. I want my own walls, to be able to close my door. I don't care where it is any more - even if it is in the middle of the Atlantic, I just want to go home," says a woman originally from the Soviet republic of Ukraine who is now stateless in the Netherlands.

Without any voice or representation, stateless people's cause is very much lost to politics and politicians. The international interest, or rather lack of it, on the issue is evident from response the two Conventions relating to stateless people have received so far.

The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines who is a "stateless person" and establishes minimum standards of their treatment. Only 66 out of 193 UN member states are parties to it. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which provides guiding principles and legal framework to assist nations prevent statelessness, has had an even more dismissive response. Half a century since it was created, only 38 states have contracted to it. Not surprisingly, the majority of nations where statelessness is most acute are missing from the list of signatories.

Nationality is a fundamental human right. More importantly, human dignity is the core principle of all human rights. No nation, great or small, can hold its head high when hundreds are languishing inside its borders, deprived of nationality and basic rights.

Unwanted, unheard and unseen, stateless people exist with a sinking feeling of rejection. 'Let's go home, back to our country,' is not an option. There isn't any country for stateless people.