“We know our laws and policies on statelessness are good, but we want them to be perfect, tell us how we do that” – representative from Georgian Government agency.
In another context, this comment, made during a recent annual statelessness workshop in Georgia, might sound insincere, even tongue in cheek. But in the Georgian context the comment says it all - the Georgian Government takes statelessness seriously. Indeed, Georgia is one of the success stories when it comes to addressing statelessness, and Georgia and its civil society are right to be proud of their efforts. Statelessness has been a significant issue in Georgia largely due to the break-up of the USSR, paired with large scale migration and displacement. In 2007 there were an estimated 11,000 stateless individuals or those at risk of statelessness in Georgia. This number has now fallen to 2,000.
I was invited to represent ENS as a speaker at a statelessness workshop in Borjomi, Georgia on 13-14 December 2016. Georgia, as I have been lucky to experience once before, is beautiful and brimming with warm hospitality. The event was co-facilitated by the Innovations and Reform Centre (IRC) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and brought together Georgian Government representatives with national and international civil society, including ENS. Both ENS and UNHCR sent international experts, including myself, to present on international standards and good practice. The workshop location was in Borjomi, several hours drive into the mountains (through the snow), which meant that participants were comfortably trapped in a bubble of statelessness law and policy for two days.
Given its successes we might ask why Georgia needs an annual workshop addressing statelessness at all? In answer, all participants at the workshop were quick to point out that although numbers have decreased there is still a group of stateless people that need a response (around 700) and many undocumented persons at risk of statelessness and the avoidance of statelessness in the future is still required. Prevention and protection of stateless persons requires constant vigilance.
The workshop highlighted the strong cooperation between the Georgian Government’s Public Service Development Agency (PSDA), UNHCR and civil society which has been going on since the early 1990s. More recently, in 2010, IRC, our ENS member in Georgia, came into existence and has been instrumental in pushing for changes to Georgian law around statelessness which saw the introduction of the new law “on the Citizenship of Georgia” and, in 2012, laws which brought in the statelessness determination procedure. IRC, in its short history has been a stateless protection force to be reckoned with - in addition to its contribution to major legislative changes it provides vital legal assistance to people going through the statelessness determination procedure and works in remote villages (often going “door to door”) to assist in awareness raising around residence and nationality, providing practical assistance to individuals navigating red tape to get their documents. IRC actively refers many clients to the PSDA and works closely with UNHCR on advocacy and awareness raising, so the workshop was an excellent opportunity to gather around the table to discuss how law and policy could be improved.
I was asked to present on international standards and comparative good practice in statelessness determination procedures. This was somewhat daunting because Georgia is one of the few European countries to have a functioning SDP which meant I was presenting to a room of Government representatives with several years’ practical experience in a functional SDP procedure. Indeed, the Georgian SPD procedure often comes up when discussing good practice, and features in both ENS’s and UNHCR’s good practice guidance.
So was I preaching to the converted? No, certainly not on all issues. Despite its strengths, the Georgian SDP is by no means perfect: there is no free legal aid and applicants must pay a fee which many cannot afford. Much of the legal assistance work and paying of fees is covered by IRC, but this model is not sustainable. There is also a lack of clarity about what rights apply to a person while statelessness is being considered and no provision that an individual cannot be removed until statelessness is decided. Another issue relates to the burden of proof for individuals who cannot establish their identity, who can be automatically refused under the procedure.
Outside the SDP procedure, there are other areas for improvement in Georgia. In Georgian law, it is not explicitly recognised that a child whose parents may have nationality can also be stateless. There are also difficult requirements which stateless individuals must satisfy (language culture and financial tests) in order to naturalize. The Government was asked to consider preferential access to naturalization for stateless persons and is actively reviewing this. Hopefully with changes in these areas Georgia can ensure that statelessness is entirely prevented and stateless persons are properly protected.
IRC also says that greater awareness is required around statelessness so people actively reach out to resolve their status. It was positive to learn that UNHCR and IRC are actively working on this front in Georgia. Both run awareness campaigns to assist undocumented persons through the path to Georgian nationality - including TV ads that run on Georgian National television so undocumented people can learn of the benefits of documentation whilst watching their favourite soap opera.
During the workshop Government representatives were keen to hear examples of international practice on law and policy. As always representatives wanted to know “who else is doing it?”, “what works?” and sometimes “will we be the only ones implementing this progressive law?”. Using a combination of ENS and UNHCR good practice guides and EUDO’s Statelessness Database we provided the Government representatives with good practice across a range of issues: from countries that provide free legal aid during SDPs (unfortunately relatively few in Europe) to preferential grants of nationality for those recognised as stateless (an area where the Georgian system falls short compared to some other countries in Europe).
Helpfully, UNHCR has recently conducted a gaps analysis on Statelessness in Georgia, the draft of which formed much of the discussion during the workshop. Readers should look out for this document which should be published in the coming months.
Two rather unique and positive aspects also raised during the workshop were Georgia’s progressive law on surrogacy and legislative amendments made which allow for committees at the municipal level to decide whether someone was resident in Georgia in the early 1990s. The latter process which requires two witnesses who can say they knew someone to be a resident in Georgia at a particular time, has been successful in allowing many individuals at risk of statelessness to obtain residence documents, putting them on a path to naturalization. The municipal committee process is a particularly interesting model and good practice for addressing difficult documentation issues for those at risk of statelessness.
Georgia is, in many ways, a model student when it comes to statelessness, but there is room for improvement. Thankfully Georgia appears to be diligently committed to further learning and the workshop revealed positive indications that Government agencies would analyse how the few gaps in laws and policies around statelessness can be closed. The cooperation between PSDA, IRC and UNHCR in preventing and responding to statelessness is impressive and ENS hopes it will continue. For our part, ENS continues to support comparative research and case studies across Europe so organisations like IRC can advocate to make good laws on statelessness even better.