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The United Nations refugee agency appealed today for greater efforts to help an estimated 12 million people worldwide who are considered stateless and left in limbo with limited human rights.

Volker Türk, Director of International Protection for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), highlighted in particular the need for countries to accede to two key international legal instruments – the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness – to protect the rights of stateless people.

“Stateless people are the overlooked millions who, in effect, have no recognized identity. The UN statelessness conventions provide a legal framework to prevent statelessness from occurring and to protect people who are already stateless,” he stated.

Mr. Türk noted during a meeting in Geneva that stateless people often fall through a protection gap given the low number of governments who have signed on to these treaties and adopted concrete measures to address their concerns.

“It's time to change that. We need States to act, and act now in confirming their commitment to reducing statelessness and protecting their rights.”

According to UNHCR, only 65 of the UN's 192 Member States are currently State parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons while just 37 have acceded to or ratified the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

The problem of statelessness occurs for different reasons, including discrimination against minority groups in nationality legislation, failure to include all residents in the body of citizens when a State becomes independent and conflicts of laws between States.

“The problem is often invisible and stateless people generally live on the margins of society,” noted the agency. “Yet statelessness can have a terrible impact on the lives of individuals.”

UNHCR stressed that possession of nationality is essential for full participation in society and a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the full range of human rights.