Looking Back on 6 Years at the Helm of UNHCR’s Statelessness Section

Melanie Khanna, Outgoing Chief of the Statelessness Section at UNHCR
/ 6 mins read

After six years as the Chief of the Statelessness Section at UNHCR, Melanie Khanna reflects on the global efforts to end statelessness, tracing the milestones and discussing the work still ahead.

Oct 2021– Melanie from UNHCR’s Geneva Office.
Oct 2021– Melanie from UNHCR’s Geneva Office.

It’s been an eventful six years, with more advocacy events, publications and partnership opportunities packed into them than I would have thought possible. There have also been so many relevant developments-- including the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of additional stateless Rohingya in 2016, the rise of populism in many parts of the world, a new global reckoning with racism, and of course the Covid-19 pandemic, which among many other things has reminded us all of the importance of holding a nationality. 

Those working with me know that I set a twin mission from day one: I wanted us to raise the profile of statelessness externally and increase its prioritization at UNHCR, as both were clearly necessary and linked in important ways. This vision was in keeping with what my predecessor, Mark Manly, had started in getting the #IBelong Campaign launched.  The task we had was to give it momentum so it would deliver meaningful change. On that front there are things to take satisfaction in, even as much remains to be done.

Marking Progress

Hundreds of thousands of cases of statelessness have been resolved over the last six years. Kyrgyzstan became the first country to declare an end to all known cases of statelessness in 2019, and Central Asia is on track to resolve the issue in coming years, perhaps even by 2024. There have been reductions in other regions as well, with some 800,000 stateless people having acquired a nationality in the last decade. There have been 29 new accessions to the UN Statelessness Conventions, the treaties that contain the international standards that prevent and reduce statelessness. Nationality law reforms in at least 15 countries will help prevent statelessness at birth, including through the reform of gender discriminatory nationality laws. New Statelessness Determination Procedures in 16 countries will enable thousands to get the protection they need. And with a higher level of public awareness and political will than ever, I am certain more progress will follow. This is manifest in all the regional declarations and National Action Plans specifically addressing statelessness that didn’t exist before 2014, as well as in the 360 pledges made at the High-Level Segment on Statelessness in 2019. It’s notable how many countries that previously had no clear focal point on statelessness issues now do, and some (including Kenya and Rwanda) even have dedicated national task forces.

Working with people affected by statelessness, civil society, governments and other key stakeholders

The partnerships on statelessness have never been stronger or more diverse, including with stateless people themselves. Covid has made it easier to be in the same virtual room with each other, an important development when it comes to working with people without passports. The testimony and activism of stateless and formerly stateless people is invaluable, as is the work by my communications colleagues, Goodwill Ambassadors, and partners in civil society to amplify it.  ENS was the pioneer civil society network, and thanks in large part to its example, new civil society coalitions have been created in almost every region, with the latest addition being one covering the Middle East. . The first global NGOs on the issue, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality rights, were launched soon after the #IBelong Campaign, and the first major academic institute devoted to the subject, the Peter McMullin Centre at the University of Melbourne, is a particularly welcome recent arrival.  UNHCR’s reports on childhood statelessness and stateless minorities helped paved the way for the first UN-led Coalition on Every Child’s Right to a Nationality and its many field projects.  With strong support from colleagues in New York, the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on Statelessness was updated and his office issued UN Key Messages on the subject. In Geneva, the Friends of the Campaign, a dedicated group of States, have met with us every quarter and spearheaded numerous initiatives, including the achievement of an important Human Rights Council resolution on the right to a nationality, and helped to increase the number of recommendations on statelessness at the Universal Periodic Review process.  Development actors have begun to take notice, thanks in part to the clear links between the SDGs and addressing statelessness.  In recent years we have been able to partner with the World Bank on the Principles on ID for Sustainable Development and a first of its kind study on the socio-economic impact of statelessness.

Increased resources and expertise

There are more capacity building opportunities, tools, and resources available to those working in this field today than ever, thanks again to the vibrant partnerships.  Since 2014, UNHCR has helped establish and teach the dedicated statelessness courses that are now offered annually by the Institute on International Humanitarian Law and the University of Melbourne, as well as others.  Today UNHCR puts out regular Quarterly Updates that help keep the community current. There are Good Practices on Resolving Statelessness; Ensuring no Child is Born Stateless; Removing Gender Discrimination from Nationality Laws; establishing Statelessness Determination Procedures; Birth Registration for the Prevention of Statelessness; and Acceding to the Statelessness Conventions.  New Guidelines on Loss and Deprivation of Nationality help  address an area of growing concern. The new IPU Handbook on Good Practices in nationality laws for the prevention of statelessness supplements the earlier joint Handbook for Parliamentarians. A series of Quick Guides on statelessness and human rights treaties covers the ICCPR, CRC, ICERD, and CEDAW. Tools include a guide to support practitioners to provide individual legal assistance to stateless persons and a one to support the identification of stateless persons in detention.  Activity in this space has truly blossomed, with a first new dedicated academic journal (Statelessness and Citizenship Review) and numerous resources led by others, including ENS’s Statelessness Index, the World’s Stateless Report and the Atlas of the Stateless put out by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.  It was impressive to see how this community came together around Covid. There have been myriad awareness raising events and publications, including our recent policy paper focused on Covid and access to vaccines. There is even new Consortium.

Looking Ahead

I’m pleased that UNHCR has helped shine a light on the drivers of statelessness, including discrimination. That will be important to continue. Our study of gender discrimination in nationality laws was recently extended to cover sex discrimination in birth registration matters, and will soon extend to other areas. I’m gratified that we have begun important work on the linkages between statelessness and climate change, which will be a critical area of focus going forward.  And I hope the effort we’ve made to frame statelessness as a development issue will bear fruit in the years ahead.  To support that effort, closing the data gap remains a key challenge.  The project we’ve begun to develop new International Recommendations on Statelessness Statistics offers important promise in that regard. 

Finally, circling back to the question of internal prioritization: UNHCR’s recent evaluation of its work on statelessness and management’s robust response to it is a fantastic opportunity for further strengthening our work on the topic.  I see possibilities to scale up our legal assistance to stateless people, something mission-critical to propelling solutions forward faster.  There are also exciting opportunities to accelerate law reforms by really concentrating our effort.  For my part, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn so much and collaborate with so many, and I look forward to following the progress in years to come. 

Related topics