“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

In pursuit of solutions for the stateless

8 July 2015 | Chris Nash, Director of the European Network on Statelessness

In pursuit of solutions was the theme of last week’s 2015 UNHCR NGO Consultations, a focus that perfectly captures the motivation behind UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign which seeks to eradicate statelessness within a decade. It also represents a good moment to pause and reflect on how far we have collectively travelled on our journey towards meeting this objective.

The statelessness session held during the Consultations provided one such opportunity. The session showcased two country contexts where successful efforts are being made to reduce statelessness, in the Kyrgyz Republic and the Bahamas respectively. It also saw attention drawn to the hugely worrying juxtaposition currently taking shape in the Middle East and North Africa which sees this region host both the highest concentration of gender discriminatory laws (12 of the 27 countries which still discriminate against  a mother's ability to confer nationality to her child, to be precise) and the highest prevalence of armed conflicts (Syria, Iraq, etc). This toxic combination coupled with obstacles to birth registration (including in surrounding host countries) creates a risk of childhood statelessness on an unprecedented scale. Next week’s ENS blog will focus in more detail on particular issues and challenges faced by Syrian refugees in Turkey in this regard.

Discussion then moved to how established and emerging regional statelessness networks can potentially come together as part of an international coalition of civil society actors working around a designated theme such as the eradication of childhood statelessness. It is worth reflecting that since last year’s Consultations we have seen the formation of the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness as well as promising steps taken towards potentially establishing a dedicated statelessness network in Asia following a meeting in Bangkok last month. In the same period we have seen the launch of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (with global scope and related expertise) as well as of course the re-launch of the European Network on Statelessness as an independent charity (with increased autonomy and appetite for action/impact). So levers are now slotting into place in terms of the ability of civil society to support and complement the work of UNHCR and other stakeholders committed to addressing statelessness. Further evidence of this was apparent in the breadth and sophistication of discussion at a statelessness side event attended by 50 NGO representatives in Geneva last Thursday evening - organised jointly by ENS, the Institute and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

However, a key question remains as to if/how resourcing can be scaled up to meet (or at least make sizeable strides towards) the commendable ambition of the #ibelong campaign. Clearly one key aspect to this will be the successful making of outcomes-based as well as human rights-based arguments, and linked to this the unlocking of development aid budgets as well as humanitarian aid budgets. In addition to being able to engage other UN actors with efforts in support of the #ibelong campaign, it also seems clear that UNHCR needs to significantly increase its in-house capacity to work on this issue. Impressive progress has been made in recent years with regard to awareness-raising, the production of normative guidance and a strategic identification of what needs to happen. However, a far greater injection of resources is now needed in terms of actually realising solutions. This was helpfully acknowledged by Volker Turk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner (Protection), during the closing session of the NGO Consultations. ENS also met with the Assistant High Commissioner bilaterally after this session, and nobody can doubt his own interest in and commitment to tackling the statelessness issue.

The nuts and bolts of how we move forward was very much the focus of the Statelessness Retreat organised by UNHCR after the Consultations, held over the weekend in a former monastery in the hills above Lake Geneva, although not high enough to escape the blistering heat … Undeterred by this, what followed were two incredibly useful and dynamic days of discussion between UNHCR and 40 civil society actors from across the globe. Melanie Khanna, the new Chief of the UNHCR Statelessness Section, set the tone for what followed when facilitating an opening session which quickly illustrated the fact that we are now very much in a new and fast-moving phase of statelessness work which requires us to think differently and in new imaginative ways.

There was consensus among participants around the need to identify state/regional champions if we are to effectively unlock political and legal solutions. At the same time we need to continue efforts to ‘crowd source’ the statelessness problem not only to other civil society actors but also a much wider community. There is also an urgency for both stronger regional and bilateral advocacy. So while helpful progress has been in made in the Americas with the Brazil Declaration and in Africa with the ECOWAS Declaration, other regions are yet to take such a strong lead (including for example the EU and the Arab League). Civil society has an important role in trying to keep attention on the issue in these various forums and agendas. Equally in order to really mainstream statelessness into the fabric of the UN human rights system there is a need for more concerted and targeted use of multilateral frameworks such as the Universal Periodic Review, the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and other Treaty Bodies. Collectively we also need to be better at making the #ibelong campaign work for us in our statelessness activities. One very practical outcome of the Retreat was a decision for the #ibelong website to include a shared calendar of events and opportunities (and I will conclude this blog with a few examples of activities that ENS has planned in the coming months).

It is not possible here to even begin to describe or do justice to the richness of discussions or multitude of ideas that emerged during the Retreat - which included sessions on resolving existing situations of statelessness, improving quantitative and qualitative data, tackling childhood statelessness, improving birth registration, ending gender discrimination, using the media and developing and enhancing regional networks, statelessness (including the very real need to secure funding to ensure effective capacity).

However, one looming opportunity identified is that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) due to be formally adopted later this year will include a commitment by 2030 to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration. Notwithstanding an unhelpful lack of clarity around the definition and what is meant by ‘legal identity’, as well as some other potential pitfalls, this remains a rare opportunity to mainstream statelessness as part of a much bigger picture. Indeed, rather than focus too much or too exclusively on questions around legal identity, we as civil society advocates need to be reminding everyone that the full range of SDGs are meant for ‘all’, and that ‘all’ means ‘all’ so includes the stateless. That is, if we as a global community are really serious about ‘leaving no one behind’. It will be inherent on us to advocate for stateless populations to be included in programmes and when measuring progress towards meeting the SDGs.

In closing the Retreat, a metaphor was used that civil society organisations working on statelessness are both the tip of the spear and the tip of the iceberg. This seems very apt and is an exciting (though at times daunting) place to be. Some soon to emerge activities of ENS include the launch of a major report on childhood statelessness at an event in Strasbourg on 21 September which will include an address by the Council of Europe for Commissioner for Human Rights. This new report will form part of a range of public facing actions as part of our campaign “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless”, intended to build on our conference last month in Budapest – which saw us publish eight in-depth country studies as an evidence base for action (this study on Latvia being just one example). This autumn will also see ENS unveil research in three countries (Malta, the Netherlands and Poland) on the risk of detention faced by stateless persons, as well as an accompanying regional toolkit to assist efforts in addressing this problem. We will also be holding our second Train the Trainer event to help grow a dedicated pool of trainers as part of our broader capacity building efforts. So plenty to do, and plenty to look out for! And inspired by discussions in Geneva, ENS very much looks forward to continuing its collaboration with actors in other regions over the coming months and years.

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