Setting the bar higher - The UNHCR NGO Consultations and getting serious about eradicating statelessness

Chris Nash, International Protection Policy Coordinator at Asylum Aid
/ 6 mins read

A couple of weeks ago on this site I wrote about the potential for this year’s UNHCR NGO Consultations to act as a springboard for the adoption of an International Day on Statelessness, but also more generally about  the scope for discussions in Geneva to add critical impetus to our collective efforts to tackle statelessness.

Like others who have reported back on the NGO Consultations, I have returned buoyed and optimistic, not least by the scale of ambition evident in Geneva. For a more detailed report of the Consultations I would recommend Laura van Waas’s blog on the Tilburg Statelessness Programme website accessible here. Rather than repeat what has already been usefully said, here I will simply focus on a few reflections that I took away from Geneva, including some which relate directly to the role of the European Network on Statelessness as a coordinating body for civil society efforts to address statelessness in Europe.

Having personally attended the UNHCR NGO Consultations almost every year for a decade now, I was genuinely struck by how much attention was devoted to statelessness compared to ten or even five years ago. Never before have I heard UNHCR speakers so routinely refer in their introductory remarks to their mandate including both refugees and stateless persons, regardless of the thematic nature of any particular session. Moreover, given the obvious (but hitherto still stubbornly hidden) multiple ‘entry points’ for the issue (which I’ll come back to below), statelessness was rightly raised in almost every thematic and regional session during the Consultations. The fact that 75 participants attended the dedicated statelessness session as part of the formal agenda and a further 30 or so crammed into ICMC’s meeting room for the ENS side event was further evidence, if any were required, that statelessness can no longer be viewed as a niche or marginal issue. Indeed, there was agreement among participants that henceforth we should stop talking about how the issue has belatedly emerged but rather consider its place at the table as a given, and focus all our energies prospectively on how we make more effective progress to tackle it.

In this regard an important conceptual shift visible last week is the increasingly pronounced framing of statelessness as an issue that can and must be eradicated within the next decade.  This ambitious approach was already evident in language used by High Commissioner Guterres in his address at UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting last year, and he reiterated the goal of eradicating statelessness within a decade during his rousing closing address at the NGO Consultations last week. This message was also reaffirmed by numerous other senior UNHCR figures during other sessions, and cannot now be dismissed as a throwaway sentiment or an impossible dream but rather must be seen as a real and tangible hook around which to mobilise our collective efforts. The High Commissioner himself invited suggestions as to how to strengthen public messaging around this commendably ambitious statement of intent.

This invitation lends itself to further reflection on the Call by ENS and the Tilburg Statelessness Programme for the adoption of an international day on statelessness which we canvassed views on while in Geneva last week. The first thing to report is that the Call generated significant interest -with over 30 NGOs present confirming their potential support for the idea. At the same time there was perhaps an emerging view that a better alternative, or at least complementary, approach might be to instead allocate and rally around a series of days aimed at tackling statelessness, similar to what already exists with the campaign involving an annual 16 days of activism to end gender violence. Another suggestion was to instead lobby the UN General Assembly to declare a UN Decade for the Eradication of Statelessness, similar to what has previously been adopted with regard to eradicating poverty. If sufficient support could be garnered, this could have the potential to mobilise the full spectrum of actors necessary to make the ambition to eradicate statelessness a reality.

Equally, a decade of action could provide a strong backdrop and impetus for a civil society-led international coalition or campaign. As reported by Laura van Waas in her blog, during the statelessness session at the Consultations there seemed to be an emerging consensus that what is now needed is a campaign around which to develop an international coalition/movement of civil society organisations working on statelessness, and that this campaign should focus on a common cause such as the goal to eradicate statelessness. Clearly it would be premature to claim complete consensus on this question, and the discussion needs to be taken away by participants for further internal as well as collective reflection and refinement. However, important progress has been made in identifying what needs to happen.

Moreover, whatever the common goal agreed or the exact path of coalition building embarked upon, a key factor to success will be our deftness in better framing statelessness as an issue and our ability to better utilise the entry points available to us. During discussions last week it was remarked how hitherto too often stateless populations or constituencies have not identified statelessness as their binding characteristic with regard to the problems confronting them. Furthermore, it was repeatedly identified that we need to better frame statelessness with regard to the international discourse on development and livelihood issues or around questions of access to education, healthcare or other services for which stateless persons currently often stand discriminated against and at the back of the queue. We need to question why no major international mainstream NGO (with the possible/partial exception of Refugees International and the Open Society Justice Initiative) has taken up statelessness as part of its central mandate or activities, at least not in any visible way?

The other key advantage identified in adopting a day of observance or a series of days of action is the increased public space that this could create to hear the voices of stateless persons themselves. This need for this seems particularly acute given that the current lack of images and narratives, combined with an at times overly legalistic framing of the issue, partly explains why statelessness has not yet properly emerged in the public consciousness. As remarked by one participant, if done creatively a day or week dedicated towards such awareness-raising activities could also reinforce a ‘mainstreaming’ approach by finding relevant entry points around which to group testimonies or stories – for example linking rights under the 1954 Statelessness Convention to themes such as family, livelihood, freedom of movement and detention.

Indeed, a pressing question now confronting ENS is how it can best contribute to advocacy and awareness-raising efforts around next year’s anniversary of the 1954 Convention. This was one of the key topics discussed during the ENS side event last week which crammed a small room full with both people and ideas. The meeting was addressed by UNHCR’s new Europe Bureau Director, Vincent Cochetel, who immediately set the tone by declaring that aiming to eradicate statelessness produced in Europe within a decade is a realistic ambition. This chimes with ENS’s stance that we should no longer accept the fact that children are still being born stateless in today’s Europe. Of course everyone recognises that meeting the eradication objective, or at least making significant progress towards it, requires immediate and sustained action, the setting of appropriate milestones and the priority allocation as well as judicious use of resources.

The jury may still be out about the best way to achieve the goal to eradicate statelessness, and some will continue to question if this is realistic, but the fact that the bar is now visibly higher can hopefully only serve to help spur us all on to unashamedly demand and seek new ways to bring about this objective.

Chris Nash is Coordinator of the European Network on Statelessness

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