Governments worldwide are urged to pay urgent attention to the plight of millions of stateless people and to follow a set of recommendations the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has issued to ensure they are covered in the COVID-19 response.
“Millions of people around the world are denied a nationality and the legal rights endowed with it. They do not exist on paper and most often live on the fringes of society,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Our worry is that at such a critical time, in the middle of a global pandemic, they now are at great risk of being left behind in the response,”
Without citizenship, stateless people often do not have access to essential services, including health care, and now may also be precluded from or face obstacles in accessing coronavirus testing and treatment.
“We must repeat that exclusion does not benefit anyone, least of all the global effort to contain the virus. The pandemic can only be beaten if everyone, regardless of their legal status, is included in the response,” said Grandi.
Some 3.9 million stateless people appear in the reporting of 78 countries but the true number is likely to be far greater.
Without legal rights and access to services, statelessness leaves many politically and economically marginalized, discriminated against and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
In many countries across the world, stateless people live in sub-standard and inadequate sanitary conditions which can compound the risk of outbreaks. Limited by their legal status, many work in the informal sectors which can also hamper adherence to public health protocols such as self-isolation and physical distancing.
Considerable numbers of stateless people are also being held in prolonged pre-removal detention on the basis that they are not considered as legal residents and there is no country to deport them to.
In addition to the violation of their right to liberty, they now face the prospect of increased risk of infection, as doctors and medical associations around the world have raised concerns about the potential of COVID-19 to spread within these centers.
UNHCR is also concerned about the potential for mitigation and response measures to fuel xenophobia and discrimination for those perceived to be at risk of contagion, given a majority of the world’s known stateless population belong to minority groups and are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.
“This virus is exposing both the devastating consequences of statelessness and the urgency of the need to resolve it. The right to a nationality is a fundamental human right and in this time of crisis it can mean the difference between life or death,” said Grandi. (Source: UNHCR)