Q&A: Antonio Guterres, UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees

By Sonia van Gilder Cooke Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

The plights of refugees fleeing famine and conflict in Somalia and Libya have captured the world’s attention recently. But around the world, there are millions of people who face similar troubles in their own home countries. The stateless have no citizenship or ID — legally, they don’t exist, and have no rights to healthcare, education, or social welfare. On the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, TIME spoke with Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, on why this happens and how to help.

Why is statelessness an important issue?
Imagine living in the slums in the developing world without an ID card. You’re not able to send children to school or go to a health center, to be able to work legally or to have property. You may be harassed by the police or jailed without any rights. It’s an enormous amount of suffering.

Why has so little attention been paid to statelessness in the past?
Stateless people are hidden. During the 2011 refugee crises, it was obvious that people were fleeing Somalia and Libya — there was a lot of international attention. Statelessness goes undetected because stateless people are in legal limbo and are afraid to show up. It’s the most forgotten human-rights problem in today’s world.

How many stateless people are there in the world?
Estimates vary between 12 million and 15 million.

What causes statelessness?
When a country like the Soviet Union ends, people fall through the cracks. Racial and ethnic discrimination is also a cause. The Rohingyas are Bengali Muslims who have lived in Myanmar for centuries, yet they have never been recognized as citizens. Many countries do not allow women to convey their nationality to their children — if they are single mothers, the children become stateless.

What is the international community doing to tackle this issue?
There are two international agreements, including the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Only 38 countries in the world have ratified it, however. Countries should ratify the conventions and adopt national legislation to grant people the possibility of having a nationality. At the least, we want countries to provide stateless people access to the services, even if they do not have citizenship.

What progress has been made?
Nepal has recently given nationality to 2.6 million Nepalese. Many countries that came out of the Soviet Union, including Russia, have done a lot to grant nationality. In the last decade, ten countries, including Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco have changed their laws in order to allow woman to convey the nationality to their children.

What situation are you concerned about at the moment?
There is a risk, today, in Sudan. The governments of south Sudan must make sure that everybody will get a nationality — that nobody will become stateless because of this separation.

Is there a success story in solving statelessness?
After independence, the Biharis in Bangladesh had not been recognized as citizens. There was an historic decision by the Supreme Court saying that that should corrected. The civil society, the judiciary, and the authorities cooperated and managed to address what was a very sensitive political question in the beginning. The problem is now essentially solved.