Usually, when we meet new people, especially in an unknown environment for us, we often feel shy and uncomfortable, be it a work-related or a personal meeting. The situation gets even more complicated, if you don’t speak the same language. This summer, together with our UNHCR teams in Georgia and Italy, I had the fortune to meet with stateless youth and the parents or guardians of stateless children, as well as the NGO representatives that work with them, where in most cases we did not speak the same language. However, we could understand each other very well from the very beginning. This is because there is one universal language that all of us share and understand and that is a smile. In both countries, the young stateless persons we met, stepped into the meeting room with a smile, a little bit shy at the beginning, but growing confident with every word. Together with Georgia and Italy in Europe, over the summer UNHCR spoke to over 250 children and youth in other five countries of the world, including Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Malaysia and Thailand making it seven countries in total.
This is the first geographically diverse survey of the views of stateless children and youth. Many of the children and young people had never spoken to anyone about what it was like to be stateless. Despite their positive attitude to life and strong faith in a better future, they also told us about the debilitating impact that statelessness has on their lives. They told us that growing up stateless means they face a life of discrimination; their status profoundly affects their ability to learn and grow, and to fulfil their ambitions and dreams for the future. Many said that being stateless had taken a serious psychological toll, describing themselves as "invisible," "alien," "living in a shadow," "like a street dog" and "worthless."
On November 3, 2015, to commemorate the first anniversary of the UNHCR 10 year campaign to End Statelessness, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, presented the report at a high-level panel discussion at the UN Headquarters in New York. “In the short time that children get to be children, statelessness can set in stone grave problems that will haunt them throughout their childhoods and sentence them to a life of discrimination, frustration and despair,” said Guterres. “None of our children should be stateless. All children should belong.”
In Italy and Georgia, we met a lot of inspiring young boys and girls (up to the age of 24), many of whom had a clear vision about their future. One of them, Valentino (21), a young stateless Roma man in Italy, had an aspiration of becoming a well-known ‘pizzaiolo’ (pizza chef) and open his own pizzeria in Rome. Despite not being able to enter a university, he found a way to attend vocational courses in order to gain some useful skills.
“I have done a municipal course in pizza making,” he says. “I became really good. I worked at a friend’s pizzeria and the customers asked if there was a master pizza maker in the house! I even started teaching pizza-making to Bangladeshi migrants in the course. I would love to have my own pizzeria but for that I need to get citizenship. I want to find a job, a house. I want a regular life. For others, these things might seem trivial, but for me they are not.”
Most of the young stateless persons we spoke to did not only want to change their lives for the better, but they also showed a strong desire to make a change in their communities and help others who found themselves in a similar situation. For example, Ned (23), a stateless man in Italy, wants to be useful to the young people in his community: “I didn’t have a role model, when I was growing up. I want to become one for others.”
One thing that stroke us the most during both trips was the fact that when speaking to the stateless youth from these two European countries that are 3389 kilometers away from each other, despite the distance between them, these young stateless persons all felt that statelessness was unfair and prevented them from making their dreams come true and living the life they deserve…and that as human beings they had a right to belong. This was the predominant message from stateless youth in the other five countries across the globe too.
When we met Jirair (22) in Georgia, his future was unclear. He had never had any documents that proved his identity. He was an aspiring Greco-Roman wrestler, but was not sure whether he would be ever able to make his dream of representing Georgia at international competitions come true: “The doors of the world are closed to me. Everybody left for a tournament and I stayed behind to train here alone. The coaches support me, saying: ‘It is OK, be patient, keep training.’ Everybody leaves and when they come back they are full of new updates. I listen to their stories and inside I am crying. But I still hope to become a good coach for young people, to set a good example. The one thing I need to achieve my dreams is citizenship.”
Despite the difficulties that Jirair has faced since he was young, he didn’t want to make up his mind to these circumstances. Not long after we met Jirair, he has been finally recognized as a stateless person in Georgia. This has opened many doors to him, including the chance to obtain a travel document for a stateless person and participate in the commemoration event at the UN Headquarters in New York. To my mind, one of the strongest messages in Jirair’s speech was the following: “…I received an official travel document. For the first time in my life, I had an identity. And in five years, I can apply for Georgian citizenship…Holding this document in my hand and standing in front of you today, it feels like the time when my coach would take my hand and lift it up after I won a competition. Now instead of my coach, you are taking my hand, and I am counting this as a life win for me.”
I am not sure, if I have ever met such a bright and positive young man before.
UNHCR is calling on more countries to support the campaign launched on November 4, 2014 to end statelessness. In the year since, regional initiatives and action by states have seen the global community rally behind the campaign. However, there is still much to be done, including in Europe.
The prevention and resolution of childhood statelessness is one of the key goals of UNHCR’s Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 Years. To achieve this goal, UNHCR urges all States to take the following steps in line with the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness:
- Allow children to gain the nationality of the country in which they are born if they would otherwise be stateless.
- Reform laws that prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers.
- Eliminate laws and practices that deny children nationality because of their ethnicity, race or religion.
- Ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness.
We hope that the stories of stateless children around the world will inspire states and ordinary people to continue to raise awareness about this campaign. If you haven’t already, please sign and ask your friends to sign the Open Letter to End Statelessness today.
To watch the high-level panel discussion at the UN Headquarters in New York dedicated to the anniversary of the #IBELONG campaign at the UN Headquarters in New York, click here.