In its latest Mid-Year Trends 2016 UNHCR estimates at least 10 million people to be stateless globally. Approximately one-third of them are children. UNHCR also currently reports over 700,000 stateless persons in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) area of 57 Participating States (pS), including those belonging to Roma and Sinti minorities. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and that of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led to a significant increase of stateless persons in the OSCE region and many successor states continue to remain affected. However, an increasing willingness to tackle statelessness exists among OSCE participating states, as past experience shows solutions are not necessarily complex or costly to implement.
Against this backdrop, and based on the continued excellent cooperation between the two organisations, UNHCR and the OSCE jointly created the Handbook on Statelessness in the OSCE Area: International Standards of Good Practice. The Handbook was launched at the OSCE in Vienna on 2nd March 2017 by UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk together with the Secretary General of the OSCE, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities (HCNM) highlighting the continued successful cooperation between the two organisations.
Background and Future Use of the OSCE-UNHCR Handbook on Statelessness
In 2014, the year of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 UN Convention related to the Status of Stateless Persons, UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to end statelessness by 2024. A key component of the Campaign is the Global Action Plan, which comprises 10 Actions that States are encouraged to take, with the support of UNHCR and other actors, to resolve major instances of statelessness, and to prevent the emergence of new cases. Whilst the UNHCR has a global mandate for the identification and protection of stateless persons, as well as the prevention and reduction of statelessness, the OSCE as the world’s largest regional security organisation under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter has a specific interest in supporting such efforts. Statelessness is not only a serious human rights issue, but it can also lead to tensions within communities and threats to regional security that need to be addressed.
OSCE participating States have made a number of commitments in the OSCE context regarding the protection of stateless persons, the right to nationality, access to citizenship, civil registration and the provision of documentation among others. This is articulated in a number of OSCE documents, such as; in the 1992 Helsinki Document – Decisions on the Human Dimension, the Charter for European Security adopted in Istanbul in 1999, in the Action Plan for Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area (Maastricht 2003), as well as the Ministerial Council Decision No. 10/07 on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination: Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding (Madrid 2007). Additionally, the provision related to citizenship in the 2008 Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-States Relations and the 2012 Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies are also of relevance.
From the perspective of its mandate, the OSCE, together with ODIHR and the HCNM has been identifying challenges faced by Roma and Sinti and other minorities in the OSCE area, with statelessness emerging as one of them. As a result and based on the positive feedback on the OSCE-UNHCR Protection Checklist, UNHCR and OSCE decided to join forces once more in merging their expertise, knowledge and resources in this practical handbook, a first of its kind in the OSCE area.
The information and good practices presented in the Handbook are intended to encourage further engagement and concrete actions towards ending statelessness in the OSCE region. Further, the Handbook aims to show participating States that ending statelessness is not costly, but that it needs political will to adjust their legislation, administrative procedures and processes accordingly.
As referenced in its introduction, the Handbook is intended to be a practical guide to help OSCE participating States and Partners for Co-operation, OSCE institutions, and field staff to:
- Understand the effects of statelessness and the scale of the problem,
- Get acquainted with the legal framework surrounding statelessness,
- Comprehend key issues of identification, prevention, reduction of statelessness and protection of stateless persons,
- Identify stateless persons and populations and those at risk of statelessness,
- Know which concrete steps can be taken to tackle statelessness,
- Liaise with UNCHR as the specialised agency that can assist authorities with endeavours to eradicate statelessness in joint cooperation with ODIHR and HCNM.
It is expected that the Handbook will start to be used in cross-regional practical exercises within the OSCE area as early as this summer and autumn.
Current progress on statelessness by OSCE member States
Despite the challenges, there has also been progress in tackling statelessness in a number of OSCE participating States in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and South-Eastern Europe. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, and Serbia, Croatia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are OSCE member States that provide examples of progress and good practice. Their case studies are featured in the Handbook alongside others, and three examples of good practice from each of these regions are featured below.
Kyrgyzstan reformed its citizenship law by recognizing as Kyrgyz citizens all former USSR citizens who have resided in Kyrgyzstan for more than five years. As a result, between 2009 and 2014, over 65,000 former Soviet Union citizens had their Kyrgyz nationality confirmed. Since 2014, the government, UNHCR and a local NGO partner embarked on a registration exercise across the country and assisted stateless persons or those of undetermined nationality to acquire or have their nationality confirmed. This resulted in over 8,500 cases being resolved between January 2014 and August 2016 with the majority having their Kyrgyz citizenship confirmed. The countrywide identification and registration exercise was completed by the end of 2016 and the statelessness situation is expected to be fully resolved in the next few years.
In 2014, OSCE/ODIHR recognised the lack of certificates or passports as one of the key challenges Roma continue to face in Ukraine. In 2013, The National Strategy on the Protection and Integration of the Roma National Minority into Ukrainian Society up to 2020 was approved. The subsequent Action Plan recognised that a significant number of Roma have no ID documents and that there is a need to address the situation with specific policy measures. In 2015, OSCE/ODIHR Contact Point on Roma and Sinti Issues in cooperation with the Ukrainian government hosted an expert seminar on access to identification and civil registration documents by Roma in Ukraine where UNHCR experts from Serbia and Montenegro were invited to share good practices. The seminar was held to support the Ukrainian authorities in their efforts to gain deeper understanding of the obstacles Roma face in obtaining civil registration and ID documents and to identify concrete steps to overcome these obstacles.
Finally, in Serbia, the UNHCR has held joint advocacy work and made continuous efforts with central and local government institutions to raise public awareness on the seriousness of the problem of statelessness and the efficacy of solutions. These efforts resulted in a draft law on legal subjectivity and amendments to the Law on Non-Contentious Procedures, adopted in August 2012. Amendments facilitated a simplified procedure for establishing the time and place of birth of persons who had been long unsuccessful in meeting complex admin requirements finally allowing registration of their birth. This has reduced number of “legal invisible” persons and bolstered prevention at the same time. In June 2016, a UNHCR survey conducted among Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Serbia showed that the number of persons without IDs dropped from 6.8% to 3.9% from 2010-2015.
The examples above and others featured in the Handbook clearly highlight that resolving the status of stateless persons in general, and those in the OSCE area in particular is realistic and achievable with political will, amendments to existing legislation, the right tools and support. As the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection reminded at the OSCE launch: “States are indispensable partners in addressing statelessness as governments are responsible for making the legal and policy reforms necessary to prevent, address statelessness, and solve the invisibility of stateless persons.”