Tackling statelessness in Kyrgyzstan and the wider Central Asia region – the importance of networking

Azizbek Ashurov – Director of Ferghana Lawyers
/ 6 mins read

Kyrgyzstan is one of the fifteen former Soviet Union republics, which inherited numerous nationality issues following the collapse of the USSR. Statelessness, which persists to this day, has been a fundamental cause of discrimination, exploitation, and forced displacement.

At the time of the dissolution, tens of thousands of people failed to exchange their old Soviet passports for new ones issued by the successor states, and while many have done so since, thousands still remain without any recognized documentation. State succession also caused border disputes which resulted in unsettled nationality, pushing people into legal and political limbo. Poor civil registry systems and practices, in particular in relation to birth registration are another cause of creating new cases of statelessness in the region.

People affected by statelessness often have limited or no enjoyment of basic human rights such as access to education, healthcare, employment, birth registration, identity documentation and freedom of movement. According to different data available for the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR, more than 800,000 people were left without definite citizenship in the Central Asian region. This is partly due to gaps in nationality laws and practices that were adopted by the newly independent States. While significant progress has been made to reduce statelessness since then, migration in and out of the region coupled with the lack of effective safeguards in citizenship laws has led to additional cases of statelessness in recent years.

Finally, the closure of international borders with Uzbekistan in 2013 has also contributed to an increase in statelessness. While there was complete freedom of movement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, inter-marriage and movement across the border was a common phenomenon, but after the sealing of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, thousands of people found themselves stuck on either side of the border with expired documents, therefore increasing their risk of statelessness.

NGO “Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders” (the Fergana Lawyers)

NGO “Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders” is a non-governmental organisation, established to consolidate the work of lawyers on conflict prevention and to strengthen development of regional and international co-operation on human rights issues. It was established in April 2003 and since then has become the leading organisation in assisting the most vulnerable groups and working in a volatile region of unsettled borders and major incidences of violence (Andijan in 2005, southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010). The organisation took part in coordinating a network of NGOs assisting more than 175,000 IDPs in South Kyrgyzstan after the violent conflict in 2010. In addition, the Ferghana Lawyers actively took part in conflict prevention through advocacy and close engagement with the relevant state authorities.

In 2014, the Ferghana Lawyers in partnership with UNHCR launched the pilot campaign on registration and documentation of stateless people in Kyrgyzstan, which was the first pilot for such a project in the region. The Ferghana Lawyers set up mobile legal teams which travelled to remote areas to provide legal aid to stateless people and assist through procedures to acquire nationality. Litigation linked to this work set landmark legal precedents for the entire country. During the campaign a total of 10,828 stateless persons were identified and 10,761 applications were submitted to the relevant state authorities for citizenship determination or acquisition. A total of 10,471 persons have obtained proper documentation. Only 357 cases remain unsolved which will require follow up in 2019. Hopefully this means that we are close to reducing all registered cases of statelessness in Kyrgyzstan and hence close the statelessness chapter once and for all. The Fergana Lawyers’ work is recognized as exemplary in the UNHCR's Good Practices Paper: Action 1: Resolving Existing Major Situations of Statelessness, using the innovative solutions to reduce statelessness in Kyrgyzstan.

It is worth noting that this was primarily possible due to the activities of civil society on lobbying for changes and improving legislation to reduce statelessness, which opened access to the naturalization of a large number of stateless persons (the so-called "amnesty campaign"). Non-governmental organisations, working closely with UNHCR, played a central role in introducing legislative changes and creating progressive practice. The Ferghana lawyer’s legal expertise and advocacy skills contributed to securing legislative amendments in matters of identification of stateless people and simplified naturalization procedures. Kyrgyz Presidential regulation No. 174 is a good example of such advocacy efforts. This regulation provides an option and access to expedient procedures for stateless people (in practice – this mostly applies to Uzbek spouses married to Kyrgyz citizens and residents of the former USSR with undetermined citizenship) to acquire Kyrgyz citizenship.

During the campaign through door-to-door visits, the Fergana Lawyers assisted some 55,000 people with the issuance of nationality and civil documents. This figure is significant for a country with a population of about 6 million. Moreover, we hope that this successful example in one small country can motivate a significant shift in the region and prove to be the useful precedent in forming a successful practice that other countries will adopt.

The Central Asian Network on Statelessness (CANS)

In June 2015, the Ferghana Lawyers represented by its director Azizbek Ashurov was invited to present the results of the Campaign and exchange experience with international colleagues at UNHCR’s 2015 Statelessness Retreat which focused on the implementation of the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness 2014-2024. During the Retreat we first met and became closely acquainted with the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness (Red ANA). The example of these networks inspired the Ferghana Lawyers to create a similar network in the Central Asian region.

In November 2015 in Almaty, the Ferghana Lawyers in partnership with UNHCR organised a regional conference, which brought together leading civil society and academic institutions working on statelessness. This initiated the work to establish the Central Asian Network on Statelessness (CANS). The network's development has been coordinated by the Ferghana Lawyers with ongoing support from UNHCR. Throughout this process, the experience and support of the existing networks in other regions, particularly ENS, has been very significant. ENS attended the Almaty meeting in November 2015 and presented its experiences and lessons learned in developing a regional network. The presentation (covered in a previous ENS blog here) created great enthusiasm and optimism and played a decisive role in enabling a firm decision on the creation of the Network. CANS has since maintained close collaboration with ENS as well as with other sister networks like the Red ANA, NAMATI and SNAP.

In the first year following our establishment we devoted significant time to the organisational development (including a website, etc.). Thereafter from 2017 we became more focused on activities to deliver our mission. Today CANS is a recognized platform for collaboration on the reduction of statelessness in the region and includes civil society, academics and journalists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The Network created an internal referral system to assist members with legal cases. It also facilitated a study exchange for representatives of Tajikistan to learn about Kyrgyzstan experience with the pilot campaign to reduce statelessness. The success of these exchanges led to the initiation of a similar campaign in Tajikistan, which identified 24,000 cases throughout 2016-2018, most of whom were assisted to resolve their stateless situation.

Looking ahead

Central Asian States supported by UNHCR and civil society partners have made significant progress in tackling statelessness. From the beginning of the first pilot over 154,000 stateless people have been identified and over 57,000 cases have been successfully resolved. Today, a total of 102,000 people are known to be stateless in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The next main challenge for CANS is to get all the states in the region to accede to the Statelessness Conventions and to implement their provisions in national legislation, which undoubtedly will require even more efforts to mobilize various parties and conduct a more thoughtful dialogue with states. In this CANS relies on its friends and partners such as ENS.

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