Perhaps borne from a certain sense of frustration, many of us working on statelessness often feel compelled to emphasise the hidden nature of the problem. But travelling back from a series of statelessness-related events in Strasbourg I find myself more convinced than ever that we are witnessing a major turning point in efforts to tackle the issue, and which render the 'forgotten' label redundant and even unhelpful.
And that's not just a subjective assessment. Yesterday the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted by 66 votes to 5 in favour of a series of recommendations proposed in its report 'Access to Nationality' aimed ar preventing and reducing statelessness. The Assembly expressed its concern at the high number of stateless persons in a number of countries, in particular Estonia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and asked member states to sign and apply the European Convention on Nationality and the UN conventions against statelessness. The Assembly recommended automatic acquisition of nationality for children born in the territory who would otherwise be stateless, as well as in situations where a person’s loss of nationality would lead to his or her statelessness. Also of note was the recommendation to re-establish an expert committee on nationality which could conduct a study on new trends related to nationality matters.
Given the emotive pull of issues concerning nationality and belonging, many observers feared that the report’s recommendations might not be approved at all, let alone by such a commanding majority. This hopefully conveys a strong political signal to other government and institutional actors yet to take statelessness seriously. Full details of the report and its resolutions/recommendations can be found here along with a video of the debate here
I would like to think that parliamentarians were at least a little swayed by a Hearing to discuss the need to eradicate statelessness organised earlier that afternoon by the the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons as well as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). During this debate, UNHCR reiterated its ambition to eradicate statelessness within a decade, and employed powerful testimonies from stateless persons in support of this call to action, and in order to illustrate the human cost that will continue unabated if European leaders fail to meet their obligations towards stateless persons. As was remarked by Boriss Cilevics MP (Author of the PACE Access to Nationality Report), UNHCR's goal is undeniably ambitious but at the same time is realistically achievable for Europe at least. Laura van Waas, speaking on behalf of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) at the Hearing, then set out a compelling agenda for how European states can and must take more decisive action to prevent childhood statelessness in the region. This 'manifesto' for change is set out in a recent report published by ENS and reported on in last week's blog. It was encouraging to observe many Parliamentarians take away copies of the report as they left the Hearing.
The previous day ENS and UNHCR jointly organised the Conference Stateless but not Rightless which attracted 100 participants from over 50 countries - packing the room full of not only NGOs but also academics, ombudsmen as well as state and judicial representatives. So hardly suggestive of a hidden issue.
Certainly few listening to the keynote address by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, could be left in any doubt as to the priority he affords to tacking statelessness. The conference provided a useful opportunity to debate the need for all European states to introduce functioning statelessness determination procedures in order to rescue stateless migrants from a life in limbo and the very real risk of being subjected to a vicious and endless cycle of destitution and detention. This included a focus on the recently published ENS good practice guide as well as the need for a more active role by the European Union. Several speakers expressed their support for the ENS campaign to protect stateless persons in Europe. Taking the lead from an insightful presentation by ECtHR judge Angelika Nussberger, the afternoon session sought to expand on the role of the ECHR and other quasi judicial bodies in improving the protection of stateless persons. We at ENS will continue to watch that space with interest, and later this year the Network will publish a litigation strategy seeking to maximise such opportunities.
Of course only time will tell with regard to the discernible impact of this conference. However, it seems unthinkable that such an event would have attracted such a high level of participation even three years ago. Equally, few observers would have predicted that over the last three years there would have been more ratifications of the 1961 Statelessness Convention than during its first three decades of existence. This is a real and concrete measure of progress, but which alone will not remove the scourge of statelessness. Not while Europe hosts over 600,000 stateless persons, including an estimated 400,000 plus in Estonia and Latvia alone. Or while during the course of today new children will have been born stateless in countries across Europe.
This is why later this year ENS will launch its next major campaign aimed at preventing childhood statelessness. This was one of the key decisions made at ENS's first ever Annual General Conference held in Strasbourg earlier this week. It was hard not to feel buoyed and empowered by having over 40 ENS members from 28 countries gathered together in one room with a shared aim and common objectives. The fact that such a rapid development of the Network has been possible in just two years since its launch in 2012 only added to a unified sense of purpose. While of course issues and priorities vary from country to country in the region, there is no doubt that now having a coordinated civil society voice on the issue can significantly enhance the focused and effective targeting of resources.
Participants also expressed their shared belief that only working together, including with intergovernmental and government actors, can we make real progress towards the ambition of eradicating statelessness. Yet even if total realisation of this target remains elusive, it must be reasonably hoped that nobody will still be describing statelessness as a hidden issue in a decade from now.