YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – As the international community works to end statelessness by 2024 within the context of the #IBelong campaign, a leading African prelate has outlined some of the major factors driving statelessness on the continent.

Speaking at an online conference organized by a commission of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Archbishop Joseph Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg in South Africa said armed conflicts, seasonal migration and human trafficking were some of the factors responsible.

“Conflicts in African countries over a long period and wars are the reason for so many stateless children,” said Tlhagale, who is also a member of the UNHCR-Religions for Peace Multi-Religious Council of Leaders and a supporter of the #IBelong campaign.

The 1954 Convention relating to the status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as an individual “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.” In other words, a stateless person does not have the nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become so for one reason or another.

The 75-year old archbishop said statelessness can be a result of people moving with ease across borders, and noted that especially moving children across borders means they “do not really belong, or try to claim the nationality, of either country, and so they move in and out of two or three countries, and over a long period of time end up being stateless because they do not belong or have documents.”

The cleric also talked about seasonal migrants who “by virtue of being seasonal, they do not reside in one area or in one country, and do not register the birth of their children.”

In addition, human trafficking and climate change -induced migration are also factors to be blamed for the increase in stateless children in Africa.

“In some cases, children who are trafficked remain stateless and grow into adulthood without proper documents”, Tlhagale said.

“Climate change often forces families to move, to search for better opportunities… There are many reasons why Africa still has huge numbers of stateless people,” the cleric explained further.

It’s typically hard to state the number of stateless people globally, but the 2020 World Statelessness Report by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) estimates that 15 million persons are stateless worldwide, with Ivory Coast alone containing nearly a million stateless people.

The report also concedes, however, that “fewer than half of all countries in the world submit any data, and some of the most populous countries in the world with large suspected stateless populations do not report on statelessness at all”. The figures therefore may pale in comparison to the real situation.

A study conducted by the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA) states that “Childhood statelessness is an increasing issue in South Africa. A considerable number of migrant children in South Africa are stateless or at risk of statelessness.”

It further states that “childhood statelessness has a number of pathways … A lack of birth registration, the perpetuation of statelessness from one generation to the next when the children are born of stateless parents, undocumented children not knowing their nationality, and unfair laws preventing children from access to a nationality.”

Such statelessness means that the affected people aren’t often allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married.

Tlhagale said he regretted that African governments typically neglect to deal decisively with the problem, and therefore children are denied their basic rights.

“The state has not seen it as its duty to ensure that children are registered at birth,” he charged. “People do not know the procedures for registering children, especially in rural areas, and the government has not put safeguards in place that will ensure that children are registered at birth.”

He said the Catholic Church in South Africa has been doing what it can to assist stateless children, noting that religious sisters “work a lot with women and children.”

The “Scalabrini Sisters and the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa take in quite a number of young children and teenagers who are stateless because they are here on their own”, he said.

“Private schooling has been created by some of the schools here for children without documentation. So yes, the church does play a big role.”

From 26-29 February,2024, some 300 people with lived and learned experience of statelessness from across the globe will meet at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur, Malasia to exchange knowledge, perspectives, ideas and skills on the subject of statelessness.

Organized by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI), Nationality for All (NFA) and Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) Malaysia, the conference will focus on the three themes of solidarity, knowledge and change in view of helping end statelessness.

The #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024 was launched by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in November 2014. The campaign has proposed a 10-point action program, which can be found here.