When Chris Nash, the Director of ENS, called to ask if I was available to represent the organisation in a meeting on statelessness in Almaty, Kazakhstan, my first action was to reach for my Atlas. As I suspected, this central Asian metropolis was a relatively short hop to the Chinese border. This was to be a long journey.
Almaty, the capital city until 1997, is situated at the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. On arrival, if one looked past the Soviet style office blocks, it resembled Geneva, with snow-covered peaks providing a magnificent backdrop to the city. However, no time for sightseeing. I was there to speak at a meeting organised by the UNHCR Regional office with the support of Country offices from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan on ways in which a sister civil society network on statelessness could be established in Central Asia.
The organisers considered that in order to bolster their chances of succeeding in building a network, someone from ENS could explain how the European network came into existence. In addition I was to share the learnings that led to the successful growth and operation of the network. As chair of the ENS Board of Trustees I could tick the first box, in that I could explain in some detail how ENS came about. Similarly, in my previous work with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) I had acquired an expertise in establishing and supporting regional networks.
Truthfully, prior to my arrival I had a superficial understanding of the scale of statelessness in Central Asia. I was aware that in 1991, following the dissolving of the USSR and the coming into being of the Commonwealth of Independent States, large numbers of people lost their citizenship; namely, these populations numbered 280 million amongst whom 60 million had lost their citizenship in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. The situation has changed dramatically since then and by 2009, UNHCR recorded 46,886 stateless persons in the Central Asia region. By now UNHCR had fully committed to the issue of statelessness and had begun to support a strong group of NGOs working throughout the region to provide direct assistance to these people.
Ten NGOs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan participated in the Almaty meeting; complemented by representatives from three universities, four media agencies, UNHCR and ENS.
The meeting went well. Thankfully, for me, during the first day I listened to an overview of the statelessness issues in the region. The participants discussed common concerns and challenges related to their daily work. By the second day, when I was expected to provide an account of the European dimension, I felt assured that the driving forces, challenges and many of the solutions I had experienced in ECRE and AMERA would be of high relevance in Central Asia. More importantly, I felt confident that it made sense to encourage this group of NGOs to take
forward their plans to establish a sister network to ENS. We got down to work.
By the end of the meeting it was agreed that the participating States shared many common problems. Also, that awareness of the rights of stateless persons was low. It was agreed that gaps in national legislation were a continuing cause of statelessness and that the government implementation of regulations concerning citizenship and other related issues, often diverges from the actual legislation.
Finally, the participants decided that the creation of the civil society network was now a necessity and that increased collaboration among the representatives would contribute meaningfully to the reduction and prevention of statelessness in the region.
Despite the overall consensus about establishing a regional network on statelessness, it was recognised that it would be prudent to proceed step by step, with some caution, to ensure the widest possible participation. Thus, the first action would be to draft a Memorandum of Understanding as a bases for the formation of the Network. To my delight, within days of my return to London this document had been written and distributed.
I am certain that ENS can and should continue to play a supportive, guiding role as the Central Asia network begins to establish itself and grow, from strength to strength.