“How lucky I was that the only obstacle in fulfilling my potential was myself. Whatever I did and wherever I went I did not have to prove who I am, only what I have done and what I can do. In stark contrast, children who are born stateless often cannot fulfill their potential and achieve their dreams. But this, as we have already heard, is a preventable problem and there are many things we can and must do to address it.”
As I was saying this at the second Anniversary Event for UNHCR’s campaign to end statelessness #iBelong in Geneva this Thursday, I had mixed feelings. I was saddened to see the number of 10 million stateless persons in the world has not changed and that so many people are still suffering the consequences of statelessness. At the same time I felt optimistic as Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reiterated some of the recent successes made, such as Thailand’s and Kenya’s pledges to grant nationality to the stateless groups on their territories, the new accessions to the Statelessness Conventions and increased efforts to prevent statelessness in conflict situations, particularly in the Middle East.
In light of further efforts to end statelessness, Mr. Grandi, together with Sikander Khan, UNICEF’s Director of Emergency Programmes, announced the new global Coalition on Every Child’s Right to a Nationality. The Coalition, which is due to be launched in December 2016, will expand and strengthen efforts internationally and nationality to combat the hidden problem of childhood statelessness. While headed by the two UN agencies, this coalition will specifically engage civil society and utilize their capacities in ensuring every child’s right to a nationality.
I was invited to speak at this anniversary as a representative of the ENS #StatelessKids campaign, to highlight the achievements made by the Youth Ambassadors and make the case for the role of youth and civil society in eradicating childhood statelessness.
ENS Youth Ambassadors working across Europe
This July, 35 youth ambassadors from all across Europe, including myself, met in Brussels at the first ever Youth Congress on Statelessness organized by the European Network on Statelessness. In the three days during the congress, we learned about the intricacies and injustices of statelessness, we came to understand that statelessness is a solvable issue, and we were equipped with skills on how to engage the public as well as influence policy makers towards ending childhood statelessness. We also advocated directly to Members of the European Parliament at an event held in the European Parliament in support of ENS’s #StatelessKids campaign, and presented an online petition which has gathered over 20,000 signatures. We asked the MEPs to join our fight against statelessness and ensure that every child in Europe has an effective right to a nationality. Most importantly however, we drafted national action plans on how to raise awareness and tackle childhood statelessness in each of our own countries. The diversity and innovation of actions envisaged by our community of youth ambassadors was truly inspiring. These include social media campaigns, teaching in schools and universities on statelessness, mobilization of new audiences and organization of innovative awareness-raising events.
Even though as Youth Ambassadors we came from different parts of Europe, all of our proposed actions reflected one specific need. The need to engage youth and civil society in eradicating childhood statelessness. I work for a civil society organization called the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, or MYLA. We are a group of young enthusiastic lawyers who are working to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law in Macedonia. One of our key activities has been to provide legal aid to stateless persons, and we have been the only organization in Macedonia doing so. Now, in partnership with the European Network on Statelessness and its #StatelessKids campaign and grass roots children’s rights organizations, we have launched an awareness raising campaign providing information on the extent of statelessness in Macedonia. In cooperation with youth media outlets we are featuring news articles on statelessness. Last week we held a study session with law school students on statelessness and next week we are organizing an interactive lecture with high school students showing them the importance of nationality and the plight of their peers that live without a nationality. Additionally, MYLA, supported by UNHCR, has developed a short video featuring stories of stateless children in Macedonia which will be shown on a number of national TV stations.
Such activities are not only happening in Macedonia. My fellow youth ambassadors are engaging in similar activities in countries across Europe in support of the #StatelessKids campaign. The launch of a UNHCR and UNICEF led global coalition to ensure every child’s right to acquire a nationality in December will add further vital impetus to the momentum initiated by civil society and the youth ambassadors across Europe. During the anniversary event, it was particularly encouraging to hear that Carol Bachelor, UNHCR’s Director of International Protection, who held the first ever position on statelessness in the agency more than 20 years ago, echoed the crucial role of civil society has in ending statelessness.
The goal of the #iBelong campaign is to end statelessness globally by 2024. I am aware that much work remains to be done, but statelessness is an issue which is entirely solvable and I strongly believe that we all have a role to play. By convincing States to establish safeguards in their nationality laws to ensure that every child born on the territory who would otherwise be stateless is entitled to a nationality, we could end childhood statelessness within a generation. Nationality shouldn’t be a privilege, but a right of all children allowing them to have the future they deserve.