Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in this report, gives a chilling account of how victims of Boko Haram and other wars in West Africa have turned stateless. It also demands from UN member states efforts at rescueing the over 750,000 so recognised from their statelessness.
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 the overwhelming majority of stateless persons in West Africa 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 f 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.
“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 ”
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 status,” 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. SEE MORE ON PAGE2