“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

A look back at seven years at the helm of UNHCR’s Statelessness Section

22 May 2015 | Mark Manly, UNHCR

When it comes to issues of forced displacement, there is a massive amount of doctrine, operational guidance and academic writing. There are a range of international organisations involved and many, many NGOs. It is a crowded field. In contrast, in 2008 when I took up my post as head of the Statelessness Section, there was relatively little doctrinal or operational guidance from UNHCR and few NGOs and academics working on statelessness.

So, those of us working on statelessness at the global level were a lonely bunch. But we knew that the plight of stateless people and the causes of statelessness merited much more attention. That was a major motivating force for me personally. I had long worked on issues of human rights and non-discrimination but found the stories of stateless people particularly compelling because the world was not paying much attention to the destructive force of statelessness on their lives. Along with a growing number of people in UNHCR, I felt that UNHCR needed to transmit what we were seeing to a broader audience, tell the human story and spur States and civil society to action. We also needed to make better use of UNHCR’s mandate and global reach.

But where to start? We had a solid base on account of the strong language in UN General Assembly resolutions and UNHCR ExCom conclusions 78 and 106. UNHCR had also done a lot of internal training and developed guidance for staff and this contributed to operational successes in Ukraine and Sri Lanka as well as law reforms in key countries and a modest rise in the number of States parties to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions.  

Yet, momentum was limited. A number of developments changed this. Here are four.

First, the introduction of a new UNHCR budget structure in 2010 meant that statelessness became much more visible within the Organisation. Expenditure on statelessness tripled within three years and the number of offices working on statelessness doubled. Seven regional statelessness posts were created to support the work of field offices and support regional processes. These developments led to an increase in work at the national level on law reforms, establishment of determination procedures under the 1954 Convention, provision of information and legal advice, and advocacy on accession to the Conventions. It also meant that more NGOs began to work with UNHCR as partners. Needless to say, none of this would have been possible without the vocal support of ExCom Member States.

Second, we used the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention in 2011 to place statelessness higher on the international agenda. Dozens of regional and country-level meetings with States plus engagement with NGOs led to pledges by 61 States at the December 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva. To raise awareness of the impact of the problem on individuals and societies, in August 2011 we launched a media campaign which increased global understanding of the issue. With the same objective, UNHCR has co-organised with photographer Greg Constantine many exhibitions of his “Nowhere People” project which shows the harsh realities faced by many stateless people around the world. 

Third, we held a series of expert meetings to clarify some of the key issues of the law, including the much misunderstood definition of a stateless person, the notion of “de facto” statelessness and the scope of safeguards to prevent statelessness among children. The first two issues were addressed in the Handbook on Protection of Stateless Persons, the final issue was the topic of guidelines issued in 2012.

Fourth, we have focused heavily on coalition-building. The increase in activity in the past few years led to more contact and networking and support between NGOs, academics, governments and UNHCR. We have sought to further encourage this through regional meetings, annual NGO retreats and by drawing 300 people to the First Global Forum on Statelessness, organised with Tilburg University’s Statelessness Programme.

Often, though, “statelessness” is both too broad and too abstract to attract attention of many NGOs or other actors. It therefore became obvious that we needed to highlight other connected issues, such as women’s rights, child protection and minority rights and to encourage sector-specific coalitions. This was the origin of the Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights which brings together a range of NGOs and is supported by UNHCR and UN Women.  Another means of moving beyond the abstract is the formation of regional coalitions, such as the ENS and the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness (ANA), both of which have been actively promoted and supported by UNHCR.   

As a result of these developments, when UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to end statelessness in November 2014, we had already achieved progress in areas such as accessions and reform of nationality laws. There was a sense of momentum. In addition, there was already an incipient global movement to address statelessness. Much more still needs to be done before statelessness is widely accepted by policy makers and opinion leaders as a global scourge but we have done very well so far. This is evident from the commitments made by States in Latin America and the Caribbean in the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action, the Abidjan Declaration on the Elimination of Statelessness in West Africa and the recent interest shown by the European Parliament.     

The experience of the last few years, including the work with the European Network on Statelessness, has underscored that a lot can be achieved through strong coordination between NGOs and UNHCR. We do not need to agree on everything but as long as we agree on the major priorities we can get a lot done, both at the global and country levels. Fortunately, more and more NGOs now understand the potential of an operational agency like UNHCR to achieve results at the field level, including through all important initiatives like reforms of nationality laws and provision of information and legal advice to people who are unable to navigate complex procedures on their own.

Going forward, the biggest challenge is to maintain a sense of momentum. This requires breakthroughs at the national level that actually improve people’s lives because they acquire a nationality or avoid becoming stateless. Using relevant goals and targets of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will be essential. We will need to reinforce training for UNHCR staff to fine-tune our advocacy and provide technical advice to more States. Efficient responses at a country level also require ensuring that UNHCR operations are adequately resourced, so fundraising will be a priority. More diplomatic efforts are required so that the growing concern of the international community is translated into pressure on countries which create statelessness and also support to help them find solutions. And, of course, we need to ensure that the level of civil society engagement is stepped up. 

Above all, I am convinced that the success of the campaign to end stateless depends first and foremost on empathy with stateless persons. Just as the stories of stateless people I have met around the world have had a powerful effect on me, far more government policy makers, NGOs, academics, journalists and UNHCR colleagues need to hear about the impact of statelessness directly from the people affected.


Next month in Budapest ENS will hold its pan-European conference "None of Europe's Children Should be Stateless" which is intended to support global efforts to end statelessness. In advance of this event, ENS has released a brochure reflecting on its achievements to date and plans for the future - this can be downladed here


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