LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uzbekistan is to allow tens of thousands of stateless people to become citizens under a new law hailed by the United Nations, which urged other countries to follow suit in ending the plight of some of the world’s most invisible people.
“This is a huge development and we hope it will set a precedent for other countries,” Shabia Mantoo, a spokewoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Thursday.
The Central Asian country has more than 97,000 stateless people - one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
Globally, an estimated 10 to 15 million people are not recognised as nationals of any country. Many are deprived of basic rights such as education and healthcare, and are at risk of exploitation and detention.
In Central Asia, hundreds of thousands of people fell through the cracks after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s when they could not acquire nationality from any successor states.
The new law in Uzbekistan, which came into effect this month, will enable an estimated 50,000 people to acquire citizenship. Many others are expected to benefit when simplified naturalisation procedures are introduced in September.
The UNHCR launched an ambitious campaign called #Ibelong in 2014 to end statelessness in a decade. Hollywood star Cate Blanchett threw her weight behind the drive last year.
Experts on statelessness say xenophobia and populism are complicating efforts to meet the 2024 deadline, and there has been little progress on finding solutions for big stateless populations like the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
But Mantoo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that many countries in Central Asia were making “tremendous progress”.
Kyrgyzstan made history last year when it became the first country in the world to end statelessness.
In Tajikistan, an amnesty introduced this year will allow thousands of stateless people to obtain residence permits, providing a potential route to citizenship in three years.
U.N. officials believe Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan could also meet the 2024 deadline.
Stateless people often say they feel heavily stigmatised and forgotten. Even buying a SIM card, getting a driving licence, opening a bank account or getting married can be impossible.
Mantoo said acquiring a nationality was “a life-changing experience” for a stateless person.
“It affects everything from their legal status to their physical and emotional wellbeing. It’s something so important to the human condition - the right to belong and feel included.”
Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org