“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Interview with Laura van Waas - Co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

27 September 2018
Laura van Waas

Laura is a co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and one of the co-founders of the European Network on Statelessness. In more than a decade of working on the issue, she has carried out a wide array of research, teaching and advocacy. Her articles and books are widely used by researchers and practitioners all over the world as a reference for understanding the issue. ENS talked to Laura ahead of the ENS Annual General Conference, where she will be facilitating a workshop on human rights mechanisms and a session on forced migration and statelessness.

Civil society action to address statelessness has come a long way since the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) was founded in 2014. What do you think is the biggest achievement we should be celebrating and what are some of the challenges ahead?

Since ISI was founded, we’ve seen the field of statelessness evolve very quickly. In fact, four years ago, it might have been hard to convincingly describe it as its own “field”: few focused on statelessness and those that were paying attention to the issue did so because they encountered it in their work on minority rights, refugee protection, legal empowerment, etc. Today, ENS is just one of several dedicated regional networks on statelessness and although ISI is still the only NGO with the mission to work globally on the right to a nationality, new NGOs are emerging at the local or national level. Excitingly, stateless persons themselves are behind some of these initiatives, such as in the case of United Stateless in the USA. 

While this increased engagement on statelessness is certainly to be celebrated, what really matters is positive change on the ground. In this respect, there are some important achievements, including: stronger political commitment globally, regionally and in some national contexts; continuing progress towards eradicating gender discriminatory nationality laws – an antiquated remnant of colonial-era thinking on nationality; law reforms introducing safeguards to protect children from statelessness or systems to identify and protect the rights of stateless individuals; successful litigation of cases relating to the right to a nationality; and the clear recognition of statelessness as a human rights issue that is now “watched over” in a much more systematic way by human rights bodies. Even so, the challenges ahead are considerable – and appear to be growing. Populist responses to globalisation and migration, as well as securitisation and digitalisation are placing great strain on citizenship policy and making the task of promoting fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory rules and practices ever more difficult. Today, our task is not only to help people who have found themselves shut out of the system to realise their right to a nationality, but also to be watchful for and pre-empt new threats to citizenship.

ISI and ENS have worked closely together on several projects. How does this collaboration, as well as your work with other regional networks which have followed ENS, support your mission and foster progress towards shared objectives? 

One of the most rewarding things about our day-to-day work is that it is so often in partnership with others – grassroots activists, NGOs, academics, artists, etc. The field as a whole is very collaborative, with individuals and organisations making a real effort to be open about what they can bring to the table, to understand where their work might be strengthened by working together and to identify how a joined-up approach can boost capacity to achieve progress. Collaborating with ENS and other regional networks such as SNAP (Statelessness Network Asia Pacific) and Red-ANA (Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness) has really helped ISI to get a better picture of what the needs and opportunities are in different parts of the world, because the networks monitor and respond to regional developments and their diverse members engage with the issue across different national contexts. This allows us to better target any knowledge or capacity building work, for instance by developing cross-cutting tools that can be useful to NGOs in more than one region. The two-way flow of information and ideas means we’re all keeping a look out for ways to generate more impact through partnership – as we have, for instance, in our collaboration with ENS, other regional networks, and their members, to advocate the right to nationality and protection of stateless persons through UN human rights mechanisms.

Next year in June, ISI is organising the World Conference on Statelessness and Inclusion which will be held in The Hague. First speakers have been announced and registration is now open. Could you tell us more about what you're planning and how individuals can get involved with the event? 

There are a great many conversations going on about statelessness at the moment: in specific country settings in response to unfolding crises such as with the Rohingya from Myanmar and in relation to displacement from Syria; in different regional contexts, facilitated by regional networks like ENS or within state-driven processes, often under the auspices of the UNHCR #ibelong campaign; at the global level, within human rights frameworks (e.g. the upcoming UN Forum on Minority Rights this November), the UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees and increasingly also in the development setting; among scholars who are researching or teaching on the issue; etc. There is a sharing of experiences, of information, of good practices, of new challenges, of achievements and of frustrations. People directly affected by statelessness are finding ways to join the conversation. It’s happening through events and workshops, through community organisation, over email and Twitter, even via WhatsApp groups!

As an organisation with a good helicopter view of many of these processes, since we work with different stakeholder groups and all around the world, we noticed the “buzz” increasing and saw the need to bring different conversations together. This is why we’ve taken the initiative to host the World Conference on Statelessness and Inclusion in 2019. The aim is to create a space in which people and conversations can be connected – building or strengthening bridges between actors working in different regions and different sectors. We’d like, for instance, to see a grass-roots activist from Kuwait, a PhD researcher from the Netherlands, an artist from Bangladesh and an NGO from the Dominican Republic unpacking the problem of discrimination and statelessness together.

We hope that our 2019 World Conference will help to harness the sense of solidarity that statelessness actors have, but also open the field up to new ideas and sectors and people, so that it moves beyond being a niche issue to become one which is truly recognized as being fundamentally relevant (as we know) to so many others. Anyone with something to say on the issue, a question to pose or a skill to transfer can help us to shape the programme by responding to the call for proposals (individually or jointly with others). Or, if you’d prefer to join rather than initiate a discussion, you can simply register as a participant and come along to gather ideas, connections and inspiration.

ISI have recently published a book, which tells the story of statelessness through the eyes of a child? What inspired the writing of ‘The Girl Who Lost Her Country’ and what do you hope it will achieve? 

From the very start, one of the focus areas of ISI has been promoting the right of every child to a nationality. We’ve undertaken different research projects and advocacy efforts, partnered with national NGOs and regional networks (working for instance with ENS on its #statelesskids campaign), developed tools and launched publications - including focusing the second edition of our flagship World’s Stateless report on childhood statelessness. Wherever possible, we’ve tried to find ways to engage with children who are impacted by statelessness in order to better understand and represent their viewpoints. Slowly but surely we came to see that while everything we were already doing to try to achieve positive change was important, we were missing an essential ingredient: a genuine dialogue with and among children – both stateless and those with citizenship – about the right to a nationality and what it means. This is why we wanted to create a tool that was for children, not just about them. The inspiration for the story itself and for Neha, the girl who has “lost” her country in the book, came from the real Neha: a remarkable girl who grew up stateless in Nepal and has herself become an activist for citizenship rights. She’s one of the many people who we’ve worked with since the establishment of ISI who has shown us just how capable she is herself of knowing and asserting her rights. What we hope is that we’ve created a tool that will help her and others like her to start a conversation that can make a difference, whether that is with her peers, a teacher, a civil servant or a politician. We also hope it will help us and other NGOs to bring the problem of statelessness to the attention of new audiences – adults included – by releasing the issue of all its attendant jargon and legal-speak. To help with this, the book will be accompanied by a website with additional resources to ‘learn’, ‘act’ and ‘play’ and we’re now on the look-out for NGOs that are interested to collaborate with us to put the book to use in different national contexts.

ISI is collaborating with the University of Melbourne on a new online journal on statelessness and you are serving as the Editor-in-Chief together with Prof. Michelle Foster to facilitate exchange of ideas and knowledge among scholars working on nationality and statelessness. When are you planning to publish the first issue and what are your main objectives for the first couple of years?

Just as ENS and civil society networks like it are creating pathways for NGOs and other actors to talk about statelessness in their region, we see a growing appetite within the academic community for their own exchange of ideas and knowledge on the issue. We collaborated with NYU and others to convene a global meeting of scholars working on issues of statelessness and citizenship in June 2017. One of the needs identified was a means through which academics could get and stay connected with others who share their research or teaching interests, prompting the establishment of the International Network of Statelessness Scholarship (INOSS) - a Listserv now in active use for instance by scholars seeking to collaborate on panel sessions at next year’s ISI World Conference. Another was dedicated learning opportunities for young scholars focusing their research on statelessness, prompting the upcoming PhD Workshop on Citizenship & Statelessness, to be hosted by Tilburg Law School in late October 2018. 

A further need identified by global scholars was a “home” for research on statelessness that would allow different topics and disciplinary perspectives to come together and spark new lines of inquiry. To date, much of the academic literature on statelessness is scattered across different journals and edited collections, mixed in amongst a wide diversity of writing on refugee law, human rights or international relations. We have joined forces with the new Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne to address this need by establishing a dedicated online journal, The Statelessness and Citizenship Review (building on the experience of and replacing ISI’s earlier working paper series). It is a peer-reviewed publication and we have the support of a fantastic Editorial Board; but it will also be fully open-access, to ensure that everyone – scholars and non-scholars – can read and learn from the articles published. The inaugural issue will be out in the first half of 2019 and we hope that over time the journal will attract an increasingly inter-disciplinary and global array of authors and readers.

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