By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, Oct 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lawyer who helped Kyrgyzstan become the first country to eradicate statelessness has urged politicians to end the plight of millions of "legal ghosts" who lack any nationality after winning a prestigious U.N. award on Wednesday.
Kyrgyz human rights lawyer Azizbek Ashurov said combating statelessness was "simple", but required political will, arguing that governments should recognise it was in their national interest to do so.
"If governments will make a political decision to end this, they can," Ashurov, 37, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"It's in the government's interest to keep people under the radar and give them more rights and freedoms to realise themselves legally."
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) named Ashurov winner of the annual Nansen Refugee Award on Wednesday for helping more than 10,000 people win Kyrgyz citizenship.
Staff at his Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB) travelled to remote areas of the Central Asian country in battered vehicles or on horseback to give free legal advice to people at risk of being made stateless, the UNHCR said.
In June, Kyrgyzstan handed citizenship to the last stateless people on its territory - something that Ashurov said showed a U.N. goal to find everyone a country to call their own by 2024 was achievable.
Progress towards the goal will be discussed at a major intergovernmental meeting in Geneva on Monday.
An estimated 10 to 15 million people are not recognised as nationals by any country, often depriving them of basic rights most of the world takes for granted such as education, healthcare, housing and jobs.
People become stateless for a host of complex historical, social and legal reasons - including migration, flawed citizenship laws and ethnic discrimination.
Hundreds of thousands fell through the cracks after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many becoming stranded across newly established borders with invalid Soviet passports or no way to prove where they were born.
Ashurov's work was motivated by his own family's difficult experience of achieving Kyrguz citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan.
"I realised that if it was this difficult for me, with my education, and as a lawyer, then imagine how hard it must be for an ordinary person," he said.
After helping to eradicate statelessness at home, Ashurov said he was now focusing on helping other Central Asian countries, including training more lawyers on migration issues.
Stateless people cannot open businesses, pay taxes or contribute to society and are forced to work illegally, making them vulnerable to exploitation from criminal groups, he said.
In June, the U.N. said Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan were on course to end statelessness.
But there has been little progress towards solutions for some of the world's largest stateless populations, which include 692,000 people in Ivory Coast and more than 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Nansen prize is named after Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first high commissioner for refugees.
Nansen also has a Kyrgyz mountain named after him - a coincidence Ashurov described as symbolic.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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