The Road to Dignity Beyond Status: Responding to the Secretary-General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda

Tendayi Bloom, United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility
/ 9 mins read

Today’s world is a troubled world: one in turmoil and turbulence, with no shortage of painful political upheavals. Societies are under serious strain, stemming from the erosion of our common values, climate change and growing inequalities, to migration pressures and borderless pandemics. … Simply put, this generation is charged with a duty to transform our societies.

Ban Ki Moon, Synthesis Report on the post-2015 agenda, 2014

This is an exciting time to be on the planet, when real change might be possible. On December 4th, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon launched the full unedited draft of his long-awaited synthesis report on the Post-2015 Agenda, the agenda which will shape the international community’s development efforts until 2030. For those working to ensure that dignity and participation in development is not dependent on formal citizenship, this gives a lot to be positive about. Significant advances can be observed in the way migrants are included in the global agenda and in acknowledging and addressing how their access to development may be obstructed by a lack of legal status in the country where they live. However, there is still work to be done and this does not only affect migrants. The question of legal status as a prerequisite for access to rights and development needs to be tackled explicitly if we are to ensure that migrants, noncitizens and stateless persons are not excluded implicitly from the ‘Road to Dignity’. 

Migrants, Status and Development

The past decade and a half has arguably seen a substantial shift in the way that migration is understood in the international community. The Millennium began with little acknowledgement of the importance of, and the deprivations of, migrants, noncitizens and stateless persons within international systems. Since then, there have been two High Level Dialogues on International Migration and Development, and the Global Forums in Migration and Development have become an annual fixture. It has seen the adoption of a discourse of human rights for noncitizens and an appreciation of migration as a key driver of national, international and individual human development. Most recently, it has seen the launch of a global campaign to end the most extreme of exclusions from status: statelessness.

The 2000 UN report, We The Peoples, published in the lead-up to the Millennium Summit, did not mention migration, let alone the question of legal status usually primarily associated with migrants. It mentioned refugees, but only with regard to security and climate change, addressing their reasons for moving rather than the problems encountered en route, or in accessing status. Unsurprisingly, then, the Declaration arising out of the summit did not engage directly with the need for a legal status within a state in order to participate in development.

That said, it did make an important first step, calling for ‘respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants’, though couching this within the context of racism and xenophobia rather than institutional exclusions (from labour markets, welfare systems, and even accommodation markets and some commercial services) arising from a lack of legal status. By 2002, the Declaration had given rise to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of concrete, time-bound goals for global development. These have driven the international development agenda towards the 2015 finish line. As that time draws near, much work is going into both examining whether the goals have been met, and preparing for the world post-2015.

Between 2000 and today, the world has seen a major shift in the way that migration and noncitizenship are understood. Primarily, this has been through the discourse of migration and development, emphasizing migration-related contributions to international economic development. This is reflected even in the precursor to this month’s synthesis report. In June 2013, the Secretary General released his A life of dignity for all. In this document, migrants and migrant rights were mentioned, but primarily in the context of better facilitating migrant contribution to development. Between then and now, substantial efforts on the part of civil society, some Member States and international organisations, have challenged this. This can be seen most strikingly in the 5-year Action Plan developed by migrant civil society and the confluence that can be seen between this, the Agenda for Action of the Secretary General, and the conclusions reached by Member States, for example.

In October 2013, at the Second High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, many saw it necessary to start instead with the discussion of migrant rights as human rights, and to look at the particular vulnerabilities and interests, alongside the particular contributions, of migrants. This month’s synthesis report reflects this, for example, in the calls for decent employment for all, explicitly including migrants, and in the demand that states find ways to reduce the costs of migrant remittances without compromising migrant rights. However, the way the question of legal status is addressed still needs to be better developed.

Status and the Road to Dignity by 2030: It’s Not All About Migrants

The 2012 document, Future We Want, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, sets out the aspirations for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. It explicitly mentions the importance of including migrant human rights in the agenda, acknowledging directly how the problems of status associated with migration may impact upon rights:

We call upon States to promote and protect effectively the human rights and fundamental freedom of all migrants regardless of migration status.

It also acknowledged the community of migrants as an important stakeholder in sustainable development. This was a significant move and, one found continued in the Open Working Group’s Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, and one which provides a basis on which to build an agenda that addresses the problem of status directly.

The Secretary General’s most Synthesis Report restates this. Crucially, it acknowledges the need for indicators that monitor the inclusion within development processes of those whose migratory status may exclude them from rights:

Mechanisms to review the implementation of goals will be needed, and the availability of and access to data would need to be improved, including the disaggregation of information by gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location, and other characteristics relevant to national contexts. [emphasis added]

This is a positive move, and a useful stepping-off point. As any migrant or stateless person understands, and as anyone who works in this field observes, legal status within the country in which a person lives is needed to obtain even very basic access to human rights protections and development mechanisms. However, access to legal status is not only a problem for migrants. The experience of stateless persons makes this clear.

The work of members of the European Network on Statelessness provides lots of examples:

Children may be born into statelessness. The story presented by Valbona Smajli and others in a recent film by the NGO, Praxis, is particularly striking. She is a member of the Roma community living in Serbia and, because of her own lack of documents, she is also unable to register her children. A lack of genuinely universal birth registration means that children in marginalized communities may be born into statelessness across Europe. Lacking documents means they will grow up struggling for access to work, medical treatment, the franchise, even to marry and register their own children, continuing the cycle.

People in Europe may also still find themselves stateless as a result of the break up of the Former Soviet Union. Dr Railya Abulkhanova explains in a UNHCR video how she found herself stateless when the Soviet Union collapsed and she has not been able to gain a nationality since. Now living in France, she is unable to make use of her expertise in philology or her many languages. She describes how, lacking a nationality, she is treated with mistrust and suspicion.

Another key way in which persons may become stateless in Europe is when, while in Europe, their home country ceases to recognize them, or in other ways, they are unable to return. This happened, for example, to a woman giving her name only as Sarah. Dual citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, she fled the DRC, where she was living, after her parents were arrested. Her application for asylum in the Netherlands was rejected and she was in the process of being deported when it became clear that neither the DRC nor Rwanda would recognise her as a citizen. This has left her stranded in the Netherlands, without access to citizenship anywhere, and without any clear route to obtaining any.

Being stateless puts persons at risk of arbitrary detention without an endpoint and without access to legal processes and of exploitation and forced labour. Statelessness of migrants into Europe may even exclude persons from naturalizing despite satisfying residency and other requirements (Sarah, above, has been living in the Netherlands for 12 years).

It is not, then being a migrant per se that can lead persons to being excluded from development on the basis of legal status. It is not a ‘migratory status’, but it is a person’s legal status more broadly in relation to the state where they live that is relevant. Stateless persons may well not be migrants. Indeed, stateless persons are often precluded from regular migratory opportunities by their lack of status in the place where they live. The primary worry, then, is one of legal status – for migrants, noncitizens and stateless persons alike.

The acknowledgement of the importance of legal status, albeit a specifically migratory one, and the way in which it impacts upon people’s lives is a crucial step. Its presence in the Secretary General’s document as well as the Proposed Sustainable Development Goals provides an ideal stepping-off point for the development in the coming months of indicators and mechanisms that address legal status – for migrants, but also for stateless persons.

What Can I Do? – Building on #IBELONG And Providing Feedback

Ban Ki-Moon mentions on page three of the Synthesis Report,

All voices have demanded that we leave no one behind, ensuring equality, non-discrimination, equity and inclusion at all levels.

Ban Ki Moon, Synthesis Report on the post-2015 agenda, 2014

One major way in which people may be left behind, even in the wealthiest of countries, is through a lack of citizenship or other legal status in the country whether they live. This piece has argued that the synthesis report indicates that there may still be scope to address this directly in the development agenda. But it will not happen on its own.

The momentum generated by the UNHCR campaign to end statelessness by 2024 gives grounds for hope and enthusiasm and there are still various ways to get involved. In a recent European Network on Statelessness blog, the Director of the UNHCR Bureau for Europe suggested ways for leaders, states and civil society to participate in the campaign to end statelessness. He also explained ways in which individuals could get involved, by signing the UNHCR open letter as part of the #IBELONG campaign and by raising awareness and debate. Elsewhere, I have reflected on what it would really mean to end statelessness by 2024.

Civil society can also contribute to the Development Agenda directly, whether through awareness raising, online comments or more formal written statements.

This agenda is about human dignity, and to have dignity in today’s world, as many writers and activists have made clear, you need a legal status in the place where you live and you need a citizenship somewhere. We are living in a crucial moment. The Sustainable Development Agenda will be launched in September 2015. International actors are right now shaping the indicators to be used to monitor and plan global development efforts until 2030. Now is the time to ensure that the road to dignity is not closed to some because of their lack of citizenship.


Tendayi Bloom is a Research Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility  . The views expressed in this blog are her own.


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