By Emma Batha
LONDON - Kyrgyzstan handed citizenship to the last stateless people on its territory on Thursday in what U.N. officials hailed as a breakthrough in the global fight to end the plight of millions of "legal ghosts" who lack any nationality.
An estimated 10 to 15 million people worldwide are not recognised as nationals by any country, often deprived of education, health, housing and jobs, and at risk of exploitation and detention.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) launched an ambitious campaign called #Ibelong in 2014 to end statelessness in a decade. Kyrgyzstan is the first country to meet the deadline.
Hundreds of thousands of people fell through the cracks after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s when they could not acquire nationality from any successor states.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi praised Kyrgyzstan - an ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia - for cutting its stateless population from about 13,700 to zero in five years.
"Kyrgyzstan's leadership on resolving known cases of statelessness is a remarkable example that I hope others will applaud and heed," he added in a statement.
The last 50 known stateless people, including 15 children, were issued with birth certificates and passports at a ceremony on Thursday in Bishkek, capital of the mountainous landlocked country of 6 million.
"This is a terrific milestone," Melanie Khanna, head of the UNHCR's statelessness section, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Central Asia is often an overlooked region, and yet several countries there have been making steady progress towards identifying stateless people and providing them with citizenship."
She said Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan could also end statelessness by 2024.
U.N. chief Antonio Guterres, Grandi's predecessor at the UNHCR, described statelessness as "a cancer" that must be excised when he launched the #Ibelong campaign.
He said resolving statelessness was not only a human rights issue, but vital for stability as large groups of disenfranchised people could impact national security.
But there has been little progress on finding 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.
Among ex-Soviet republics, many people remain stateless in Uzbekistan, Latvia and Estonia.