"Putting people first": Statelessness at the 2018 UNHCR NGO Consultations

Nina Murray, ENS Head of Policy & Research
/ 6 mins read

Back in the office in London after a whirlwind of discussions, debates, deliberations and dinners in Geneva last week, it’s time for a bit of reflection on what was learned and gained. I want to highlight three reflections from my experience as a first-timer at the UNHCR Statelessness Retreat and a newbie to the NGO Consultations.

Firstly, what on earth is a ‘statelessness retreat’ you may ask? The Retreat is an annual two-day workshop organised by UNHCR’s Statelessness Section, which brings together NGOs and UNHCR counterparts working on statelessness around the world for reflection, discussion, work-planning, and relationship-building. It was great to meet NGOs and our sister networks in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Central Asia and Southern Africa working to address statelessness in their respective contexts, to share opportunities and challenges, and brainstorm ideas for future work. Although each context is different, there are many shared issues and challenges and much we can learn from each other’s work.

Topics that came up this year included strategic questions such as how global NGOs can influence the forthcoming High-Level Event on Statelessness in October 2019, and how we can ensure statelessness is mainstreamed across the Global Compact on Refugees and Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework; as well as issues arising from our work relating to the ethics and gender dimensions of DNA testing and a child’s right to a nationality, the role that discrimination plays in perpetuating statelessness, and the question of at what point does lack of documentation put someone at risk of statelessness and when does someone ‘at risk of statelessness’ become ‘stateless’. We left with a clearer sense of current priorities and challenges, but also new ideas for how to address them, a sense of solidarity and plenty of inspiration.

My second reflection relates to the NGO Consultations, which are always a hectic few days of intense networking, meetings and interventions. This year was no less hectic, and in fact, record-breaking, with 600 delegates in attendance. For me, the experience highlighted two key continuing challenges for our work: how do we progress beyond statelessness being perceived as a side issue, to being fully mainstreamed and integrated across the global response to forced displacement; and, how do we ensure that this year’s theme, ‘putting people first’, really means #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs in practice and on equal terms.

Progress has undoubtedly been made on both these challenges in recent years, the latter proven by the presence and participation of many more advocates and representatives from a refugee background than I remember being at the consultations the last time I attended in 2012. Significant effort had clearly been made to involve more refugee participants in different ways. But many questions and interventions during sessions related to the challenges people affected by displacement continue to face to be heard and to influence policy and decision making. An invitation to participate is all very well, but we are a long way from #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. As one participant stated in the opening plenary: "You wouldn't have a women's organisation run without women, so why have refugee organisations run without refugees". Poignantly, the question was misunderstood by the session moderator and remained unanswered, left hanging as a reminder to us all of the need to work harder to facilitate spaces for those affected by the issues we work on to shape, inform and co-deliver the solutions.

Progress has also been made in recent years to give statelessness more of a profile at the consultations. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of those in the room posting questions and waving hands, it did not get a mention on the podium in the opening plenary with the High Commissioner and was conspicuous by its absence from several other discussions I attended over the three days. Notwithstanding a successful and engaging panel on statelessness (more on this in a minute), as well as interventions and welcome references in sessions with both the Director of Resilience and Solutions and the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, there was a sense of work still to be done to get statelessness and nationality rights fully embedded in global responses to forced displacement. One of the galvanising aspects of the event for me was how those of us working on statelessness present at the consultations worked hard as a team to push questions on statelessness up the priority list on the interactive question and answer platform Pigeonhole and supported each other to make relevant interventions across different sessions. It paid off and Pigeonhole was buzzing with statelessness-related questions in the final plenary and a colleague from the Statelessness Network Asia Pacific was able to intervene with a question to the Deputy High Commissioner on how statelessness can be better integrated across future consultations.

My third reflection is a celebratory one and relates to our successful panel session at the consultations. Despite the somewhat unfortunate time slot of 4.30-6.30pm, our session on a ‘whole of society approach to addressing statelessness’ drew a crowd, filling the room with some 80+ participants. First to speak was Mr Nguli, Chairman of the Makonde community in Kenya, whose fight for their citizenship rights is an inspiration to all of us and a reminder of the power of grassroots action at community level. Open Society Justice Initiative discussed their new community-based practitioner’s guide (developed with Namati) to documenting citizenship and other forms of legal identity, and we presented our Statelessness Index as an example of an invaluable tool to support advocacy, awareness and capacity-building. We focused on how the Index can play an important role in supporting civil society to monitor state action under all areas of the #IBelong Global Action Plan, how it enables states to identify gaps for pledges ahead of the 2019 High-Level Event on Statelessness, and why we think the Index is a resource for a whole-of-society approach, designed as an accessible source of information for people affected by statelessness, as well as for civil society, governments, international agencies, and other stakeholders.

The positive buzz and engagement with our session was a reminder that, despite the challenges, statelessness is relevant, current and urgent, and there is no shortage of innovation, ideas and solidarity to draw on in our global fight to ensure that everyone has a right to a nationality.

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