A stateless person is someone who is not recognised as a national of any country and the phenomenon has a real and devastating impact on the lives of individuals, their families and communities.
While some stateless persons are forced to flee and become refugees, the vast majority remain in countries in which they were born and have lived their entire lives.
More needs to be done to alleviate the plight of those in large –scale protected situations of statelessness with profound implications for their human rights.
According to UNHCR estimates, statelessness affects up to 10 million people worldwide, about 750,000 of which are in West Africa.
Nationality does not only provide a person with a sense of identity and belonging, but it is also important for full state protection, property ownership, political participation and freedom of movement, education, healthcare, legal employment the enjoyment of many rights including and with a sense of identity.
Some international laws on statelessness include the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, which ensures the enjoyment of human rights by stateless people as it establishes an internationally recognised status for them.
The 1861 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness highlights measures which should be adopted to reduce statelessness as well as the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Right.
Indeed, the fundamental importance of the right to a nationality is recognised in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, as well as a number of widely ratified human right treaties.
Ms Maya Sahli Fadec, Special Rapporteur, African Commission for Human and People’s Right (ACPHR), African Union Office in Banjul, The Gambia said left unresolved, statelessness could create social tensions, significantly impair efforts to promote economic and social development and even lead to conflicts and displacement.
Statelessness in West Africa occurs for variety of reasons including discrimination against specific groups due to nationality legislation.
In the absence of general rules for the attribution of nationality and discrepancies between the various national laws constitute a permanent source of statelessness in the West African sub- region.
She noted that according to international and regional standards, safeguards should be provided in domestic laws to ensure that children born on the territory who would otherwise be stateless are granted nationality, preferably automatic at birth, or at the least according to a non-discriminatory application procedure.
She said the large majority of nationality laws in West Africa do not comport with this standard, as they prevent many children born in the territory who would otherwise be stateless from acquiring the nationality of the country at birth.
International standards set out in Article 4 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of statelessness provide for the grant of nationality to children born to a national abroad who would otherwise be stateless.
Most West African countries allow transmission of nationality, on a non-discriminatory basis, to a child if either parent is a national.
Gambian allows for citizenship to be passed on for only one generation; as such, a Gambian born outside Gambia would not be able to transmit his or her nationality to his or her children born outside the Gambia.
Among the most generous countries are Ghana and Cape Verde, providing, citizenship if one grandparent is a citizen.
Nevertheless, a few laws restrict the power of transmission to children born abroad to the father alone and may also impose additional criteria (for instance the father must also be born in the country of origin, or have resided in the country of origin prior to the birth of the child).
These provisions also increase the risk of statelessness for children born to a national abroad. Benin, Guinea, Mali and Togo permit the transmission of nationality by a mother under limited circumstances, namely when the father is unknown or is stateless.
International standards for the prevention and reduction of statelessness require that the law grant nationality, either at birth or upon application, to children born abroad where either of the parents is a national, if otherwise such a child would be stateless.
The absence of safeguards for foundlings is an important source of statelessness in West Africa and its incidence has to be analysed in light of the recent conflicts in the region.
As a result of those events, a large number of children have become abandon of orphans, for whom no information is available about their places of birth or parents.
Most nationality laws in the region allow the transmission of nationality to children by men and women on equal footing and since the 1990s, several laws in the region have been reformed to ensure this equal equality with the most recent reform on gender equality been enacted by Senegal in June 2013.
Nonetheless, a few nationality laws continue to discriminate between men and women in their right to transmit nationality to their children.
The presence of street children is noticeable in Ghana and, to an extent, in all of the countries of the sub-region.
Many of these children are orphans, were abandoned or come from broken families, and do not have any information about their place of birth or about their parents.
In the absence of legal measures relating to their nationality, these children are stateless.
Some limit the granting of nationality only to those children born abroad to a father who is a citizen while some restrict the transmission of nationality by mothers, even in the case of birth in the territory.
Some laws request would –be citizens, as a condition of applying for naturalisation, to provide proof that they renounced their nationality of origin and such proof is not made contingent upon the granting of naturalisation.
Thus, in the event that the law of the State of origin of the concerned individuals allows them to renounce their nationality outright while at the same time their application for naturalisation is rejected, such individuals become stateless.
Few laws provide that in case of change of civil status, a foreign woman who naturalised through marriage would lose her nationality upon divorce.
In such situation, if the woman cannot reacquire her nationality of origin, she becomes stateless.
Ineffective civil registration and documentation systems create a marked risk of statelessness in every country of West Africa.
Common problems include poor infrastructure, lack of awareness and education of parents on the need to register their children, and poor data management systems.
The birth certificate is an essential tool to establish an individual’s identity and the inability to obtain one is a severe obstacle to the establishment of one’s nationality.
As statelessness is a huge phenomenon with serious consequences for the enjoyment of human rights, state development and stability, it is urgently necessary for the sake of fundamental principles of humanity and the general interest to find solutions both to protect stateless persons and to eradicate the sources of statelessness.
To date, states in the sub- region have not adopted concrete strategies to identify people living in their territories who have never acquired nationalities.
Nonetheless a few multi-functional teams have been established, such as in Benin and Sierra Leone, where traditional and non-traditional actors have started developing comprehensive long term strategies.
The starting point includes the identification of the sources of statelessness, as well as groups of stateless populations.
Without qualitative and quantitative analysis on the factors of statelessness and demographics of stateless people in a country, planning for the protection of stateless persons and the reduction of statelessness becomes even more challenging.
National population censuses indeed offers a unique opportunity for states to capture information on statelessness, however, with the exception of Ivory Coast, none of the states in the region have designed their national census so as to collect information on stateless persons.
States should also seize the opportunity of population surveys, be they conducted by the state itself or its partners, to promote the inclusion of specific questions in the survey that permit the identification of stateless persons and the collection of socio-economic data.
The 1961 UN convention on the Reduction of Statelessness is an essential tool to ensure that the legal framework efficiently addresses the issue of statelessness.
The Convention is about preventing statelessness from occurring and thereby reducing it over time and it sets forth clear safeguards against statelessness, which States should translate into their own nationality legislation.
In 2013, Senegal amended the legislation so as to add safeguards against statelessness, notably, the new law allows women to transmit their nationality to their children, while criteria for deprivation of nationality to their children, while nationality for deprivation of nationality became stricter.
States in West Africa should ensure that they establish accessible procedures for the issuance of all other needed forms of birth documentation or any other form documentation for children and adults.
States should aim to reduce the number of identified stateless people in their territories by bestowing nationalities on them or restoring them and also integrating them into its national life.
A positive example is Ivory Coast, when in 2013 the Parliament adopted a law that enables large groups of resident population to acquire nationality through facilitated and expedited procedures.
Ghana as a state is not doing so well in its effort to combat statelessness as it has not signed the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Persons as well as the 1961 UN convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which had been endorsed by eight countries in the sub- region.