Millions of people worldwide will be unable to get health care if they fall ill with coronavirus because they have no nationality, potentially exacerbating the spread of the disease, human rights campaigners said on Tuesday.
They urged every country to ensure all stateless people on their territory can receive free medical assistance and help to self-isolate without risk of arrest or detention.
Campaigners said there was no point in countries taking measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19 among people recognized as citizens, while leaving it to fester elsewhere.
“Our health-care systems are all based on nationality. If you are stateless you are invisible to the state, but you are not invisible to the virus,” said Joshua Castellino, executive director of Minority Rights Group International.
Some experts estimate there could be about 15 million people worldwide who are not recognized as citizens by any country.
They often live in the shadows of society, deprived of basic rights such as health care, housing and jobs.
Some of the biggest stateless populations are in Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand and Dominican Republic.
Castellino said the problem could be particularly acute in Africa, where millions of people live without documentation.
He said the pandemic highlighted the importance of “leaving no one behind” – a promise made by world leaders in 2015 when they agreed sweeping goals to end poverty, inequality and other global ills.
Campaigners also said hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya, who live in crowded camps in Bangladesh and in Myanmar, were especially vulnerable.
Bangladesh reported its first case last week in the Cox’s Bazar district where the camps are located. Aid agencies fear an outbreak would be almost impossible to control.
People end up stateless for a host of complex historical, social and legal reasons, including migration, flawed citizenship laws and ethnic discrimination.
Melanie Khanna, head of the statelessness section at the U.N. refugee agency, said stateless people might be reluctant to approach health services if they become ill for fear of arrest.
Malaysia, which has a significant stateless population and is battling the largest COVID-19 outbreak in South East Asia, has said it will not arrest people without documents who come forward for testing, and has waived certain fees for treatment.
The United Nations wants other countries to take similar steps.
“Governments must include everyone because no one is protected unless everyone is protected,” Khanna said.
Ireland has also created a firewall between health services and immigration authorities during the crisis, allowing undocumented migrants to access services without fear their information will be shared.