From evaluation to implementation – Casting a constructively critical eye over UNHCR’s statelessness work

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

The start of any new year offers a moment for pause and reflection, and I begin 2022 reflecting on how we can collectively leverage more traction, engagement, and urgency in global efforts to eradicate statelessness.

#IBelong campaign to end statelessness

Helpfully, some useful thinking has recently been done on this through an external evaluation of UNHCR’s statelessness work, published last year. I was pleased to sit on the reference group for the evaluation, which was commissioned to generate insight into UNHCR’s work to support States to end statelessness since 2001, with a particular focus on actions and advocacy efforts since 2014.

Evaluation findings

In a nutshell, the external evaluators found that despite successes, the ambitions of UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign have proven to be highly aspirational and are unlikely to be achieved by 2024. The evaluation concluded that UNHCR should devote renewed energy, linked to a ‘whole of society’ approach, to engage and mobilise stateless people and actors from all sectors of society, at global, regional, and national levels.

The evaluation findings are important given UNHCR’s mandate on statelessness. They are also important for us, as UNHCR is a key partner for ENS and many of our members in countries across Europe.

UNHCR evaluation recommendations

It’s welcome that all the evaluation recommendations were fully accepted in UNHCR’s management response, thereby providing strong endorsement from the High Commissioner and both Assistant High Commissioners. But what should we now expect to see in terms of implementation going forward?

Establishing a lasting multi-stakeholder coalition to eradicate statelessness

Arguably, the most eye-catching of all the evaluation findings is Recommendation 4, which proposes the establishment of “a lasting multi-stakeholder coalition to carry the statelessness agenda forward after the conclusion of the #IBelong campaign in 2024”. In its management response, UNHCR picks out both the UN Secretary General’s 2018 Guidance Note on Statelessness and the Common Agenda Report as springboards from which they believe they can build an effective coalition.

In pursuit of this goal, it’s intended that the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection will enlist the support of the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General to engage in high-level advocacy with relevant UN Agencies, civil society networks working on statelessness, and leaders of communities affected by statelessness, to mobilise greater collective, coordinated and complementary action through a joint taskforce. From our perspective, it will be crucial that any coalition-building is pursued through a non-hierarchical and bottom-up approach, which is genuinely participatory, and inclusive of stateless people and communities in particular.

As a key component of this coalition-building exercise, UNHCR’s aim is for its country operations, supported by Regional Bureaux, to reach out to UN Country Teams (UNCT) to seek to prioritise addressing statelessness within the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF) and other partnership initiatives. This is welcome in principle. However, it will be incumbent on UNHCR to design (and communicate) a credible strategy realistically able to achieve this, particularly in light of the relatively modest success with integrating statelessness in these forums to date. Nonetheless, increased focus on this front would be timely, and offers an opportunity for civil society to support these efforts.

Strengthening leadership, prioritisation, and resourcing of statelessness work

In tandem with efforts to galvanise a wider coalition, it will be vital for UNHCR to increase its own internal prioritisation of statelessness work by fully and systematically implementing Recommendation 1 of the evaluation. This calls for strengthened cross-divisional leadership and increased focus on statelessness in all of UNHCR’s programming, which should be vigorously pursued both up to, and following, the end of the #IBelong Campaign. Regional Bureaux Directors and Country Representatives will in particular need to assume a strong leadership role in delivering on this.

Civil society also has a role to play here in holding UNHCR to account. In particular, we must seize the current window of opportunity to reach out to UNHCR counterparts at regional and country level in a spirit of positive engagement, to ascertain precisely what additional activities and resourcing are planned, and to discuss how NGOs can support this and be supported in joint efforts to eradicate statelessness. Moreover, regional statelessness networks and community representatives would seem well-placed to feed into the envisaged meetings of UNHCR’s senior leadership team tasked with reviewing implementation of evaluation recommendations on a biannual basis, as well as helping to inform periodic meetings planned between UNHCR Regional Bureaux Directors and the Assistant High Commissioners.

Strong collaboration, pooled resources, and a ‘divide and conquer’ approach by UNHCR and civil society will undoubtedly help ensure that the evaluation recommendations and related objectives are fully implemented. If we take the Europe region as an example, recent notable successes in  Ukraine, Bulgaria and Albania, among other countries, have all come about through strong collaboration between UNHCR local offices and ENS members, with support from the ENS Secretariat. This type of successful collaboration requires the continued channelling of resourcing through NGOs working on the ground.

This also needs to be complemented by increasing the number of dedicated UNHCR statelessness posts, and thereby reversing a trend, which has conversely seen several such posts withdrawn in recent years. The UNHCR evaluation report contains numerous examples of how dedicated UNHCR statelessness posts, working with civil society partners, have proved especially effective in helping to achieve positive results since the launch of the #IBelong Campaign.

Capacity-building and knowledge exchange

Recommendation 2 of the evaluation highlights the need for increased awareness and technical expertise among UNHCR staff, whether through increased briefing of Country Representatives, strengthening the statelessness component of the Protection Induction Programme, or increasing other e-learning opportunities. This will be critical for designated statelessness focal points in UNHCR offices and operations across the globe, some of whom may have little prior exposure to the topic, and may, in some instances, lack necessary capacity to prioritise work on statelessness.

Civil society is well placed to support these capacity-building initiatives, to help pool resources, and to contribute its expertise. Tools such as the ENS Statelessness Index and Statelessness Case Law Database can provide the up-to-date information needed to inform and benchmark advocacy efforts, as well as to support law and policy development and strategic litigation.

Gearing-up public advocacy for the remainder of UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign

A key test for UNHCR will be whether it can capitalise on Recommendation 3 of the evaluation, which calls for increased public-facing advocacy on statelessness during the remaining years of the #IBelong campaign. After a strong start following its launch in 2014, the campaign has been relatively less visible in recent years. It will therefore be interesting to observe to what extent a new integrated approach to advocacy campaigns by UNHCR’s Division of External Relations (intended to bring together advocacy, fundraising and strategic communications) is able to increase the profile and impact of the #IBelong Campaign during its final phase.

The planned designation of priority campaign countries also provides an opportunity for UNHCR to achieve greater targeted impact, but at the same time it will be incumbent on UNHCR not to neglect statelessness work in countries absent from the priority list, or to focus efforts solely on achievable short-term wins. Equally, it will be important to review the priority list on an annual basis, and for UNHCR, in consultation with partners, to designate additional countries where new opportunities arise, or where statelessness issues are most acute.

At the same time, working closely with partners, UNHCR should increase its efforts to encourage and galvanise the development of regional strategies to address statelessness, such as the Brazil Plan of Action in the Americas or the Abidjan Declaration in West Africa. Such comprehensive, regional, intergovernmental strategies have not yet been achieved in other regions, including regrettably in Europe, despite concerted efforts by ENS and its members. However, where successful, such holistic approaches are often the key to unlocking progress.

Seizing opportunities provided through the Global Refugee Forum

An early opportunity for UNHCR to demonstrate how serious it is about implementing the evaluation findings will manifest itself through planning for the next Global Refugee Forum (GRF) scheduled to take place in 2023.

UNHCR’s High Level Officials Meeting (HLOM) last December was tasked with reviewing progress in implementing pledges made at the inaugural GRF in 2019, including over 300 pledges made at the High-Level Segment on Statelessness. Buoyed by some recent progress, as well as new pledges made – notably the United States’ commitment to introduce a statelessness determination procedure – it must be hoped that statelessness can be yet more prominent on the GRF agenda when governments gather again in 2023. Such an increased focus would not only be consistent with evaluation recommendations, but would also be very timely in supporting a decisive worldwide push to reduce statelessness during the final year of the #IBelong Campaign.

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