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The UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva – A springboard for the adoption of an International Day on Statelessness?

4 June 2013 | Chris Nash, International Protection Policy Coordinator at Asylum Aid

A recent blog on this site considered the non-emergence of statelessness as an issue, and a similar process of reflection has led the European Network on Stateless (ENS) and the Tilburg Statelessness Programme to call for the adoption of an international day of observance on action to tackle statelessness. We are urging UN Agencies and civil society organisations alike to rally together and lobby the UN General Assembly to make this a reality. The annual UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva next week provide a tailor-made opportunity to test support for this initiative and hopefully to generate momentum towards its eventual realisation, which could go a long way towards finally helping to bring the statelessness issue out of the shadows.

It seems indisputable that statelessness has remained a hidden crisis for too long. Hence a recent relative increase in international resolve to address statelessness can only be welcomed. Greater attention and resources dedicated to statelessness by UN Agencies, increased ratifications of the statelessness conventions, pledges on statelessness and new procedures to identify and protect stateless persons by states around the world are all positive signs of a sea change. Equally important is growing activity and expertise on the issue amongst NGOs and academics. These examples show the world is beginning to catch up with the complexities and massive human impact of this man-made problem. However, despite the strong nexus with refugee related issues and the immense human rights impact of statelessness, it is still very much a niche area that hasn’t sufficiently made it onto the curricula of universities, the agendas of NGOs or the policy priorities of states to the extent that it should.

To provide some perspective, the UNHCR estimates the global stateless population to be 12 million. Most agree that this is a conservative estimate, and as efforts to map statelessness in countries around the world are undertaken, we are becoming more aware of both the extent of the problem and the extent of our ignorance in relation to it. UNHCR has a much better grasp of refugee figures; in 2012 there were 10.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR and a further 4.8 million refugees of concern to UNRWA. Additionally, 15.5 million internally displaced persons receive protection and/or assistance from UNHCR. Despite the similar sizes of these three vulnerable populations, no comparison can be made between the widespread nature of the awareness, expertise and resources on, and resultant protection available to refugees and even IDPs, as opposed to the stateless. 

It is widely acknowledged that international days of observance are an effective and practical way to raise awareness and generate momentum around an issue. According to the UN:

United Nations observances contribute to the achievement of the purposes of the UN Charter and promote awareness of and action on important political, social, cultural, humanitarian or human rights issues. They provide a useful means for the promotion of international and national action and stimulate interest in United Nations activities and programmes.

The 10th of December and the 20th of June are universally associated with human rights and refugees respectively. Observances on these days have over the years raised awareness on and the profile of the issues and challenges related to these respective fields and shed light on the work carried out by individuals and organisations in difficult environments. They have become annual celebrations of human rights and the rights of refugees, and times for introspection, assessment and review of past failures. They have contributed towards the development of discourses around these issues and the creation of a culture which is more conducive to their promotion and protection.

The adoption of an international day of observance on statelessness would have the potential to positively impact on the issue of statelessness in the same way. Given insufficient general awareness on statelessness, the benefits of having an international day of observance would arguably be greater still. Equally importantly, the time would appear right to try to take this initiative forward given recent momentum on the issue, and the fact that increasing numbers of individuals and organisations are starting to include statelessness within their mandates. The fact that ENS has attracted over 70 new members within a year of its launch is testament to that. Timing-wise hopefully we can also see a helpful correlation in that World Refugee Day was introduced in 2000, a year before the 50thanniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Hopefully next year’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons provides a similar rationale and impetus to proclaim the first international day on statelessness to serve as a marker of collective resolve to reduce and prevent statelessness and protect all stateless persons.

All this being said, making the case for adoption and actually achieving a new international day of observance are two different things. It would be naïve to underestimate the challenges inherent in securing political support for this Call in the face of possible resistance relating to a perception among some states that there is already a proliferation of international days of observance. Equally it requires a sufficient groundswell of support from a broad spectrum of civil society organisations that this is a good and necessary idea. Without this, adopting an international day would be premature and perhaps even counter-productive. Finally, the initiative needs the considered backing of UNHCR at the highest level.

The NGO Consultations in Geneva next week provide the perfect opportunity to gauge opinion on this, and potentially to provide a springboard from which to get an international day adopted in time for the 1954 Convention anniversary commemorations next year. Hopefully we can already be encouraged by the fact that statelessness is such a visible and pressing topic for debate in Geneva newt week. As well as the formal statelessness session on the agenda there is also a UNHCR-organised Statelessness Retreat beforehand and two side events in the margins, including an ENS roundtable. It will be interesting to see what develops from these discussions.

Contact ENS Coordinator Chris Nash at info@statelessness.eu for more information or to express support for this call. With enough backing we hope together to help make an International Day on Statelessness a reality.

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