A Global Campaign to End Statelessness - The Time Has Come

Mark Manly (Head UNHCR Statelessness Unit) and Radha Govil (UNHCR)
/ 4 mins read

For too long statelessness has remained a sleeper issue. This is surprising considering that UNHCR's latest statistics confirm 3.5 million stateless persons worldwide and estimate that the number is closer to 12 million. Furthermore, the problem has persisted all around the globe.  

In Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia produced millions of stateless persons who fell between the cracks of new nationality criteria adopted by successor States or were unable to satisfy administrative requirements for acquisition of a new nationality.  Historically, racial and ethnic discrimination (often codified in law) against minorities has been a major cause of statelessness. Twenty-six countries found in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, still retain nationality laws which prevent women from passing on their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers, thus creating a risk of statelessness that can be passed down from generation to generation. Recent flare-ups, from the violence between the Rakhine and Muslims in Myanmar to protests by the Bidoun in Kuwait, find a common denominator in decades-long statelessness situations in these States.

Since its creation, UNHCR has worked to provide international protection and find durable solutions for stateless refugees who are covered by its Statute and by the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, it was only in 1995 that the UN General Assembly passed a resolution conferring upon the Agency a global mandate to identify and protect stateless people and to undertake activities to prevent and reduce statelessness. At the Ministerial Meeting convened by UNHCR in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, an unprecedented number of States pledged to take action on statelessness: to prevent and reduce the problem and to recognise the status of stateless people. More than 30 countries undertook to accede, or take steps to accede, to one or both of the Statelessness Conventions.

Implementation of many of these pledges will be assisted by the issuance of recent UNHCR Guidance on: the definition of a stateless person; the establishment of statelessness determination procedures; the status to be afforded to stateless persons when they have been identified; and forthcoming guidelines on preventing statelessness amongst children in accordance with the principles of the 1961 Statelessness Convention.

Although the last few years have witnessed a heightened awareness of the plight of stateless people and an increased willingness on behalf of States to address statelessness, there is still a need for a global groundswell of concerted and coordinated action by various actors, including civil society groups, scholars, the media and affected individuals themselves, to end statelessness. Given the links between the causes and consequences of statelessness and other well-supported human rights issues, including gender discrimination, children’s rights and prevention of arbitrary detention, part of the task is to better understand the points at which these issues and statelessness intersect and to engage a wider pool of advocates to include action on statelessness as part of their advocacy strategies.

To encourage this process, on 3 July 2012, UNHCR convened an informal half-day strategy meeting on the margins of its 2012 Annual NGO Consultations.  A total of 26 NGO representatives participated from organizations working on statelessness based in 13 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  Key proposals to increase action and awareness on statelessness by NGOs and to advance a global network or coalition to end statelessness included:

  • advocacy by international and field-based NGOs on statelessness concerns before international human rights mechanisms (for example, the Universal Periodic Review, treaty bodies and special procedures);
  • action to ensure implementation of State pledges relating to statelessness made at the Ministerial Meeting in December 2011;
  • improvement of existing and creation of new opportunities for collaboration between UNHCR and NGOs to address statelessness; and
  • development of a global matrix of NGOs working on statelessness  to improve networking, coordination and joint action, including advocacy within the UN system.

UNHCR is very pleased to see the emergence of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS). The actors working on statelessness need to set ambitious objectives to address this global problem.  A first step towards our common goals is to involve a greater number of organisations, to ensure better coordination and exchange of information and to develop a common research and advocacy agenda.  ENS is leading the way at the European level.

For a range of documentation on statelessness, please visit our Refworld page: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/statelessness.html

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