“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Joint steps to end statelessness in the Commonwealth of Independent States

4 April 2019 | Zoya Golovneva, Protection Associate - UNHCR Representation in the Republic of Belarus
© UNHCR / P. Erofeev

It is estimated that statelessness affects millions of people worldwide, including nearly 200,000 in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) region. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet citizenship ceased to exist, leaving some of the 287 million people exposed to the risk of statelessness. This remains a major root cause of statelessness in the region to date. Soviet Union dissolution triggered large migration movements, and those who chose to move within the borders of the former Soviet Union often did so without a firm awareness that they were traveling through international borders.

The newly proclaimed States chose variations of the so-called ‘zero-option’ approach, whereby all USSR citizens who were permanent residents in the territory when the new nationality law entered into force, were entitled to the citizenship of that State, irrespective of their ethnic origins or other links. Due to different rules and policies adopted by the successor States on granting citizenship to those people who were not permanent residents at the time, many people were left out of the body of citizens and were faced with statelessness. Some individuals did not apply on time and thus failed to meet the criteria for acquiring citizenship of the concerned State.

For example, in Belarus, the 1991 Law on Citizenship included individuals residing in Belarus, and those who were habitually resident but not on the territory at the time of independence. They were considered citizens of Belarus as long as they held an expired USSR passport and applied for the confirmation of their citizenship by 2004. However, the law excluded stateless people, who were not considered as citizens of Belarus.

More than 25 years later, some stateless people still remain without any documents because they are unable to fulfill the administrative requirements: payment of fees, proof of place of registration in the place of permanent or temporary residence (after the dissolution), proof of medical insurance (the latter usually applies to the issuance of temporary residence permits but can be an obstacle for many applicants). As a result, they find themselves in a legal limbo unable to acquire any citizenship.

Today in some CIS countries, legislation provides several important safeguards against new cases of statelessness, including the granting of citizenship to children born on the territory of the CIS Member States, who would otherwise be stateless. However, there are cases where these safeguards apply only to children born to parents legally staying in the country, leaving those without regular stay at risk of statelessness.

The International Conference on Statelessness for the Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States

To support UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness within 10 Years (launched in 2014), and in order to assess the issue of statelessness in the CIS region in more depth, the CIS Executive Committee, the Ministry of Interior of Belarus and UNHCR jointly organized the International Conference on Statelessness for the CIS Member States in Minsk on 4-5 December 2018. This event gathered representatives from the CIS countries, UNHCR and civil society representatives, as well as academia and independent experts. The Conference also served as a platform to prepare for UNHCR’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness that will take place in Geneva on 7 October 2019, and to develop pledges to be delivered prior or at this important event as well as showcase achievements and good practices.

During the first day of the Conference, well-known experts from academia, namely Professor Rene de Groot, Dr. Katja Swider, and Professor Dimitry Kochenov provided an overview of the right to a nationality in international law, the nature and meaning of citizenship (with an emphasis on the historical perspective of citizenship legislation in the CIS region) and the prevention of statelessness. Ms. Oleksandra Sytnyk, the expert from the Council of Europe shared information on the organization’s work on statelessness, as well as on efforts undertaken by its Member States to find solutions to end statelessness in Europe.

Representatives of the CIS Member States shared their good practices in addressing statelessness in the national contexts. The situation of statelessness in Central Asia was presented by the UNHCR Regional Office for Central Asia, whereas Belarusian representatives highlighted national efforts to address statelessness, including preliminary results of a comparative analysis of Belarusian citizenship legislation vis-à-vis the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions.

Ms. Iskui Abalyan, the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, opened the second day of the Conference sharing her story of being a foreigner herself and finding a safe home in Belarus, as well as emphasizing the importance of addressing the plight of stateless persons in Belarus for whom this country has always been and will always be the only country they belong to.

UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Statelessness, Ms. Carol Batchelor introduced the 2019 High-Level Segment that will mark the mid-way point of the #IBelong Campaign, presented the global situation on statelessness, and the critical need for increased engagement to address this issue not only at the national level but regionally and internationally. Ms. Batchelor outlined that the High-Level Segment will allow countries to showcase positive steps towards the identification and reduction of statelessness, and to make concrete, time-bound pledges for action by the end of 2024.

As a result of the breakout sessions, three groups elaborated the following key recommendations.

  • Introduction of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure and the improvement of data collection on statelessness would allow for enhancement of identification and protection of stateless persons in the region.
  • Access to universal birth registration would help ensure that no child is born stateless in the CIS region.
  • Information-sharing and exchange of good practices among States is important to advance awareness-raising on statelessness, including among donors, mass media and general public, to attract more attention to the issue of statelessness in the region.

The Final Document of the Conference sheds more light on the recommendations and is available in English and Russian.

The information presented during the Conference, as well as discussions within the framework of the breakout sessions showed that the CIS Member States made a number of positive steps towards addressing statelessness in the region. The Conference provided participants from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, as well as the CIS Executive Committee, UNHCR and other international and regional organizations, academics and civil society representatives, with a platform to discuss statelessness in the CIS region and jointly elaborate recommendations aimed at addressing the remaining challenges in the region. The organizers of the Conference are hopeful that these recommendations will soon be transformed into actions prior, at and beyond UNHCR’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness.

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