“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

“I want to speak to all youth who are stateless, and say never give up!” – The powerful testimony and participation of youth at this year’s UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs

23 June 2016 | Chris Nash, Director of the European Network on Statelessness
UNHCR NGO consultations 2016

These were the inspiring words uttered by Zhirair (Stateless Youth from Georgia) during the opening plenary session of this year’s UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva. He also described how “I felt like a swallow as if my wings had been broken” to evoke the impact being stateless had on him. For me, and many others I spoke to afterwards, Zhirair’s testimony was a stand-out moment at a meeting charged with more energy than is usually possible at these gatherings - thanks in no small part to the presence this year of so many youth representatives from all corners of the globe. Indeed, the (new) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, was compelled to respond to Zhirair’s powerful oratory by himself emphasising that “to be stateless creates tragic consequences as heart breaking as for refugees”.

Listening to youth voices

The theme of this year’s consultations (which took place from 15-17 June 2016) was youth, and it was refreshing to see the venue (the Geneva International Conference Centre which looks much as it sounds) at times resemble more a vibrant town hall meeting than what can sometimes be a fairly formal and not always inspiring forum. The motto for this year’s Consultations was ‘the future is now’ although admittedly a common sentiment expressed by many of the stateless persons I’ve spoken with over the years is more often their despair that they have no future at all. Certainly, listening to Zhirair describe his experiences of missed and denied opportunities due to having lacked a nationality, it was hard not to think of the countless stateless persons around the world still not able to find a solution to their plight. But his closing words roused us to remain positive in seeking to address this, when he said “I want to speak to all youth who are stateless and say never give up!

The following day’s Statelessness food for thought session provided further insights into what it means to be stateless, as well as further manifestation of the participatory approach modelled throughout this year’s Consultations. Organised by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion with UNHCR’s Statelessness Section, and following an introductory presentation by ENS delegation member Jyothi Kanics, the session was organised around questions obtained in advance from stateless persons living across the globe, including some via ENS members in Europe – for example:

  • What has been done in order for other young persons like me not to remain stateless?” (David, 21 years old. Bulgaria)
  • Why – although I have studied for 12 years in a Bulgarian school and have lived in Bulgaria for 18 years, can I not obtain Bulgarian citizenship? (Vardan, 19 years old, Bulgaria)
  • May the police punish me, even though it is not my fault that I wasn’t registered in the birth registry book and that I don’t have citizenship? Why does the procedure for acquisition of citizenship last so long? (P.G., 24 years old, Serbia)
  • As a second generation homeless and stateless person living in the streets how do I get identity papers for my babies and me? (Romania)

The objectives of the session were to maximise the participation of stateless youth unable to join in person, to acknowledge and promote our collective accountability to them (both as UNHCR and as NGOs), and to learn what issues are most important to them in order to best tailor our responses. There was certainly no shortage of energy and appetite in the room to take up this challenge, the session proving so popular that several participants had to sit on the floor.

Mainstreaming statelessness throughout the Consultations

Another welcome aspect of this year’s gathering was the way in which the statelessness issue was mainstreamed throughout all sessions of the Consultations rather than merely packaged ‘in a box’ as part of a single dedicated statelessness session. This is certainly appropriate given that UNHCR’s mandate equally covers stateless persons (as well as refugees and IDPs) but has not always been apparent in previous years. One of many good examples of this new approach was the powerful presentation provided by Olga Tseitlina from Human Rights Centre Memorial during the Safe Asylum Spaces for Youth Session regarding the shocking conditions experienced by stateless migrants detained in Russia, including her own role in securing the ground breaking judgement from the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Kim vs Russia. The discussion that followed reflected on how tools such as the ENS 2015 publication Protecting Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention can help address the issue.

The (necessarily) ubiquitous presence of statelessness-related discussion throughout the Consultations was also apparent during the People on the Move food for thought session where several speakers noted that this was both a cause and a consequence of forced displacement, a theme also strongly picked up during last year’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Root Causes. It is to be hoped that this increasing awareness is reflected in the outcomes document which comes out of the 19 September High Level Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. This linkage is clearly acknowledged in the UN Secretary General’s report for the World Humanitarian Summit (see for example paragraphs 73 and 93) which is a relevant background paper for the forthcoming inter-governmental meeting in September in New York. Given the heightened risk of statelessness faced by the children of refugees as covered previously on this blog (including in the context of the current migration crisis) then statelessness should also naturally be a prominent theme during this year’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue on ‘Children on the Move’ to be held in December in Geneva.

Statelessness side events

Outside of the formal agenda of the Consultations, the staging of two popular side events provided further testament of the year on year increasing attention now given to the statelessness issue. On 15 June a side event in the Human Rights Council on Women’s equal nationality rights in law and practice attracted a large audience of state, UN and NGO actors. The event was co-sponsored by the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights (GCENR), 15 States, UNHCR, OHCHR, UN Women and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. Catherine, Harrington, the GCENR Campaign Manager spoke of the negative impact of gender discriminatory nationality laws – including statelessness – and of the progress that is being made towards addressing this in some of the 27 states that still have such laws in place. The Ambassador of Algeria (which has amended its laws) and the state representative of Madagascar (which is in the process of law reform) both spoke of the impact of recommendations by UN Human Rights mechanisms, in influencing positive change at national level. On 16 June UNHCR hosted an event organised by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion to launch their excellent new publication Addressing the Right to a Nationality through the Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Toolkit for Civil Society – a must read for anyone seeking a better understanding of how to utilise this important mechanism to advance the rights of stateless children. The event also launched a compelling new report Childhood Statelessness in South Africa – jointly produced by the Institute and Lawyers for Human Rights.

After the Consultations had wrapped up, ENS was part of a group of NGOs able to further discuss ongoing collaboration at a day-long meeting organised at Quaker House by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, and supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative. The following day this was usefully followed by a joined up planning and strategy discussion in the hills above Geneva - organised by UNHCR’s Statelessness Section, and putting NGO heads together with UNHCR counterparts from across the globe. In this blog it is not possible to do justice to the richness of discussions. However, one enduring question that remains evident is if/how resourcing can be scaled up to meet the commendable ambition of the #ibelong campaign which seeks to eradicate statelessness by 2024. 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 was also acknowledged that UNHCR needs to significantly increase its in-house capacity to work on the statelessness issue, and by extension to increase its collaborate with and support for civil society initiatives in pursuit of shared objectives, including to help foster increased sensitisation and receptivity to the issue by the wider donor community.

During the Retreat, ENS was invited to present on and share its experience during a session exploring how to strengthen ongoing inter-regional collaboration with other new networks such as the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness (ANA), the Statelessness Network for Asia and the Pacific (SNAP) as well as new sub regional networks in Africa and Central Asia – the latter which was formally launched earlier this month following groundwork supported by ENS at a meeting in Almaty last November, as covered previously on this blog. This year’s Retreat therefore provided a timely opportunity to collectively reflect on how much progress has been made since the first such Statelessness Retreat organised back in 2013. The extent of this progress was also acknowledged during a bilateral meeting that ENS organised between Assistant High Commissioner Volker Turk and a delegation of representatives from these regional networks.

Looking ahead to the first ever Youth Congress on Statelessness

I therefore left Geneva with renewed commitment and energy, and looking forward to next month when ENS, with support from UNHCR’s Europe Bureau and Maastricht University, will hold the first ever dedicated Youth Congress on Statelessness – to take place in Brussels from 11-13 July. This will bring together 35 youth representatives with 15 ENS members in order to join forces and galvanise support for our #StatelessKids campaign. If the Geneva experience is anything to go by, this event should provide a powerful catalyst for action. As eloquently articulated during the Consultation’s closing session by Arif Hazara (Youth Representative from Australia), “youth are connectors” and also “will is the real driving force to take action”. Hopefully these sentiments will pervade our Youth Congress and subsequent campaign initiatives. As a simple but important first step, this will include efforts to encourage many more people to watch and share our short animation and sign our online petition calling on European leaders to act against childhood statelessness (before we hand it over in the European Parliament next month) – you can do so here.

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