“A small step, perhaps, but a move in the right direction to help 600,000 people find somewhere to call home”

Chris Nash - Director, European Network on Statelessness
/ 7 mins read

This is how CNN reported on the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) campaign to protect stateless persons in Europe after we handed over our online petition at an event in the European Parliament on Tuesday evening. Aside from pleasant surprise that CNN had picked up on our campaign, it struck me as a pretty good description of what we as a Network have managed to achieve over the last year since the launch of our campaign in October 2013.

You can never properly evaluate the impact of a campaign in its immediate aftermath but some positives conclusions can already be drawn about the campaign’s contribution to the fast accelerating emergence of statelessness as an issue finally attracting widespread international attention. It’s hugely encouraging that over 7,000 individuals from across Europe have made the effort to sign our online petition calling for:

1)      All European States to accede to the 1954 Statelessness Convention

2)      All European states to introduce a functioning statelessness determination procedure

It’s true that in the larger scheme of things, this signature count is not so high compared to some other online petitions (e.g. which relate to issues attracting mass media coverage or that are fuelled by organisations with weighty communications machinery which ENS could only dream about). So it’s actually accurate and in no way belittling for CNN to describe the campaign as “a small step, perhaps” but “a move in the right direction to help 600,000 people find somewhere to call home”. It’s certainly true that we need to take many more and much bigger strides if we are to truly address the situation of not only Europe’s 600,000 stateless but also the estimated 10 million persons across the globe who are afflicted by this man-made phenomenon.

But 7,000 signatures is undoubtedly an impressive figure when you consider that statelessness has for decades been a niche and largely forgotten issue. Factor in also that our campaign period has coincided with ENS transitioning into an independent charity (and all the work that this entails) and the limited resources at our disposal, we can be rightly proud of our efforts. So now is a good moment to say a massive thank you to all our members who supported the campaign as well as to those many other organisations outside our immediate Network (too many to mention here) who helped disseminate our petition.

And beyond shedding a much needed spotlight on the statelessness issue in a broader sense, there are already some encouraging signs of tangible impact through reforms announced in two of the countries which ENS prioritised in its campaign activities, namely Italy and the Netherlands. At an event organised in Rome by ENS member the Italian Refugee Council, the Italian government committed by the end of the year to table a draft law aimed at simplifying and improving the existing administrative procedure to recognise the status of statelessness. In the Netherlands, growing pressure from civil society organisations, UNHCR, the National Human Rights Institute, the Advisory Council on Migration Affairs and practicing lawyers led to the recognition by the competent ministry in September 2014 that a statelessness determination procedure is needed and the announcement that the ministry will work towards its establishment.  In other countries such as Ireland, Poland and Slovakia the campaign impact fell short of such firm commitments but observers described increased awareness having created a dialogue to progress reform in the coming years.

Tuesday’s event hosted by Jean Lambert MEP in the European Parliament was the culmination of the ENS campaign, and featured presentations by UNHCR Europe Bureau Director, Vincent Cochetel, and the award-winning photographer, Greg Constantine, who screened a photo essay on statelessness in the Netherlands (supported by ENS and the Tilburg Statelessness Programme). The petition was formally received by Cecilia Wickstrom MEP, Chair of the Parliament’s Petitions Committee, who made an impassioned acceptance speech which bodes well for future influence the Petitions Committee can hopefully  bring to bear on other EU institutions in terms of stepping up their engagement on statelessness. It was also encouraging to see the room packed with over 60 people, including approximately 10 MEPs who had taken time out of their busy schedules in order to attend the event. The end of the ENS campaign has also been (or will be) marked by national-level events organised by ENS members in Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Slovakia. The ENS campaign day of action was covered not only by CNN but also by Thomson Reuters.

Recognising that statelessness is often dismissed as an impenetrably technical and legal anomaly, an important aspect of our communications work has been to try to put a human face on the issue, including through the production of several short films by ENS or its members. A key element of this approach was the commissioning of a short animation Everyone has the right to a nationality which proved hugely successful in raising awareness about the plight of stateless migrants in Europe and in encouraging petition signatures. Just one illustration of this is that UNHCR’s Facebook post of the animated film attracted almost 500 likes in a day. The petition and animation were also featured in mailings by ECRE, ICVA, IDC, APRRN and the Forced Migration Current Awareness Blog to name but a few. And many ENS members placed the campaign prominently on their own websites and/or tweeted, posted or emailed the petition to their networks. These combined efforts saw the petition being mailed out to thousands of professional and personal contacts, and the animation has now been viewed over 5000 times on YouTube alone. ENS has also seen over 400 new likes of its Facebook page, and its mailing list has grown exponentially.

From the start the petition was presented and disseminated on social media along with first hand testimonies from stateless persons hosted on the ENS website. A feature on these snapshots of stateless people was published in English and French in Forced Migration Review with a link to the petition. Twenty shorter testimonies were also gathered through research by ENS members in 11 European countries and published in a new report Still Stateless, Still Suffering which was formally launched in the event in the European Parliament on Tuesday. While just a small snapshot of Europe’s total stateless population, these too long unheard voices speak powerfully to the human impact that statelessness has on people living in Europe, including destitution, long term immigration detention and being stuck in indefinite limbo unable to be removed but equally unable to belong or contribute to scoiety.

The campaign has garnered media coverage in several languages across many European countries. In the UK there have been articles in respected publications with broad readerships such as The Independent , Thomson Reuters and The Equal Times. The issue has been widely covered in the Slovak Republic, with two articles published in Slovak on major news websites; Hlavné Správy and actuálne.sk. In Belgium, various articles were published, including in the influential and popular Mo Magazine. The petition also benefitted from media coverage across the Netherlands, with Dutch articles featuring on the Nederlands Juristenblad, Tilburg.com and Wereldjournalisten.nl. The issue of statelessness was given radio coverage on 35 local stations and 2 national stations in Ireland via Newstalk, and two articles were published in thejournal.ie. It was also covered by Il Mondo in Italy. More recently, the Press Agency of the Slovak Republic picked up on the campaign in an interview with Katarina Fajnorová of the Human Rights League Slovakia. In Poland, the issue has been raised in articles published by both tvn24 and rp.pl. And many more besides.

But after taking a brief moment to pat ourselves on the back, now we move on. We must build on this increased awareness, not only in those countries (such as Italy and the Netherlands) where reform is now underway but also in the majority of European states which are yet to make any real movement towards introducing statelessness determination procedures. And despite some positive noises at a recent UNHCR roundtable in Warsaw, Poland (along with Estonia, Cyprus and Malta) is yet to even ratify the 1954 Statelessness Convention despite the EU having pledged in 2012 that all Member States would do so.

ENS has set up a working group of member organisations to take forward this work over the next two years and in support of our campaign call that all European states introduce a functioning statelessness determination procedure by the end of 2016. In this period we will also fast track a programme of work aimed at ending the arbitrary detention of stateless migrants. And in November we will launch our next campaign seeking to end childhood statelessness in Europe. We hope this will represent a valuable contribution to UNHCR’s ambitious ten year campaign to eradicate statelessness across the globe. Daunting though that objective is, hopefully the success with the ENS campaign puts a spring in our step as we work towards this.

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