London: European countries must end the plight of an estimated 600,000 stateless people by giving them similar protection to refugees, campaigners said on Tuesday as they launched a day of action to highlight the predicament of the continent`s "legal ghosts".
Stateless people, who are not recognised as nationals of any country, are denied basic rights that most people take for granted. They cannot work, access healthcare or even get married. They often end up destitute or in detention and are highly vulnerable to exploitation.
"For too long Europe has allowed stateless individuals to exist as "legal ghosts" exposed to human rights abuses and with no recourse to justice. Now is the time to resolve this issue once and for all," said Chris Nash, director of the European Network on Statelessness.
The ENS, which brings together charities, lawyers and academics, will hand a petition to the European Parliament on Tuesday calling for countries to set up procedures allowing stateless people to legalise their presence.
"To be without documents and a nationality is as if you never existed in this world," said Isa, a stateless man, who was born in Kosovo and fled to Belgrade during the 1999 conflict.
His case is highlighted in an ENS report released on Tuesday which profiles 20 stateless people living in countries including Britain, France, Italy and Slovakia. Many have experienced detention, destitution and separation from their families.
Nash said it was vital to put a human face on the suffering caused by statelessness which is often neglected because it is seen as a legal or technical issue.
Many stateless people in Europe ended up in limbo when they fell through the cracks after the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Others ended up stateless when they were displaced during war.
Lejla was born in what is now Croatia to parents originating from Kosovo. She moved to Kosovo until the 1999 conflict when she was forced to flee to Serbia. Lejla says she cannot prove her claim to Serbian nationality because the relevant records were destroyed during the Kosovo war.
A far smaller number of stateless people are migrants from outside Europe who are not recognised as citizens of the countries they were born.
"I cannot go anywhere," says Rashid, an ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, who lives in the Netherlands. "I cannot go back to Myanmar because my nationality has been withdrawn."
Only eight countries in Europe have established stateless determination procedures – Britain, Hungary, Spain, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, France and Italy.
Most countries have ratified the 1954 U.N. convention on statelessness but Estonia, Cyprus, Malta and Poland have not done so.
Jean Lambert, a British Member of the European Parliament, who is hosting Tuesday`s event said: "Stateless people live outside the margins of our society and are denied the opportunity to contribute as citizens. They urgently need our help ..."
Worldwide there are around 10 million stateless people. The European initiative comes ahead of a major UN campaign to eradicate statelessness within a decade.