YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A leading South African archbishop has lined up a broad range of disadvantages that stateless people face.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), stateless people are people not recognized as citizens by any country under the operations of its laws. Across the globe, they are estimated at 4.4 million stateless people, although actual numbers can be much higher.

Speaking during a June 13 conference on statelessness in Johannesburg, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale described it as “a restrictive and deterring condition that denies individuals’ political, civil, socio and economic rights and consequently their dignity as human beings.”

The UNHCR says statelessness can result from a broad range of issues, including discriminatory citizenship laws, the emergence of new states and changes in borders, loss or deprivation of nationality, conflict or gaps in nationality laws, as well as a lack of documents proving birth, which in itself does not necessarily mean a person is stateless but birth registration is important evidence of a person’s parentage and place of birth. Without it, the risk of statelessness increases because a person may find it difficult to prove their link to a state.

Tlhagale spoke to this last point, indicating that children without birth certificates “undergo a lifetime experience of suffering discrimination, denied access to among others, health services, education and fulfilment of their ambitions or dreams.”

“I don’t think we normally understand the pain and the frustration of a young person who suddenly sees that he has no future. He can’t go anywhere, because there is no document. That is the impact of being stateless,” he told Vatican News.

The archbishop said this is of particular concern to the Southern Africa Development Community, SADC, where UNICEF figures indicate that 14 million children under five are not registered, and 19 million do not have birth certificates.

He complained that states have not put in place mechanisms “to lessen these figures and so children will continue to be born with the same problems that prevent them from being registered at birth.”

“It therefore, means that universal birth registration which relies on states establishing and maintaining functional and inclusive Civil Registration Systems, is not yet a basic and common practice in the SADC Region,” Tlhagale said.

So important is the issue of fighting statelessness that it’s found traction in various international bodies, including the United Nations.

In 2014, the UNHCR launched what it called the #IBelong Campaign that aims to end statelessness within ten years, by identifying and protecting stateless people, resolving existing situations of statelessness and preventing the emergence of new cases.

Tlhagale described the campaign as “a noble initiative aimed at raising awareness about the negative impact of statelessness on children and to stop generational perpetuation of statelessness.”

With the #IBelong Campaign running out this year, the UNHCR will in October launch the  Global Alliance to End Statelessness, which is  a new initiative that by 2030 seeks to accelerate solutions to end statelessness by 2030 through a collective multi-stakeholder approach, which integrates  the experience of those who are stateless and formerly stateless.

It was in the buildup to that launch that the Johannesburg meeting was held.

“We have an urgent task of encouraging our governments to adopt the practice of issuing birth certificates immediately after birth registration, a good and standard practice in the region,” the archbishop said.

“The importance of birth registration cannot be overemphasized,” Tlhagale said, “because, as UNICEF explains, is a permanent and official record of a child’s existence, and provides legal recognition of that child’s identity… It establishes a legal record of where the child was born and who his or her parents are. Birth registration is required for a child to get a birth certificate – his or her first legal proof of identity.”

He complained that the Southern African region was already lagging behind in the struggle against statelessness across Africa and noted that “others have been at it for some time. “

He said the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has led the way in efforts to end statelessness in Africa.

In February 2015, ECOWAS Members states adopted the Abidjan Declaration on the Eradication of Statelessness. They then proceeded to adopt the “Banjul Plan of Action of the Economic Community of West African States on the Eradication of Statelessness 2017-2024.”

The plan highlights birth registration to prevent statelessness as one of its main objectives.

Tlhagale said that at the level of SADC region, leaders “have also signaled a political commitment to address statelessness in the region through the adoption of the SADC Road Map on the Eradication of Statelessness.”

He told participants at the Jamesburg meeting that it was critical to “mobilize religious leaders and organizations, and other stakeholders, in the global strategic objective to accelerate efforts towards the eradication of statelessness.”

“A shared and collective responsibility amongst not only states but various stakeholders, religious, civil society, and stateless people themselves will in my view, mitigate the challenge of statelessness in our SADC region,” the archbishop said.