Our statelessness conference in Madrid – what we learned, and what's next?

Chris Nash, Director, European Network on Statelessness
/ 6 mins read

The team and I are still buzzing after being with such a diverse group of inspiring people at the ENS and Fundación Cepaim conference ‘Addressing Statelessness in Europe’ in Madrid last week.

And judging by the intensity, infectious energy and smiling faces which seemed evident at every conference session, it’s not only us who feel this way. Hopefully, we delivered our aim of creating a safe space to enable inclusive, respectful and collaborative discussions among participants in order to inspire change.

In this piece I reflect on what we learned, and what’s next?

Photo by Robert Bonet, ENS

In total, the conference was attended by over 200 participants from 34 countries - including stateless changemakers, community-led organisations, NGOs, lawyers, academics, as well as numerous representatives from government, UN and regional institutions.

So what did we learn from our gathering in Madrid? It’s impossible to capture the depth or breadth of discussions in this short piece. But three key reflections stand out for me, also drawn from what so many people told me during the conference.

Pannelists and atttendees
Photos by Robert Bonet, ENS

Firstly, a demonstration of how stateless people not only can, but must, jointly lead change efforts 

The conference felt like a real step change in crystalising an emerging understanding that stateless people should not only be included in advocacy spaces, but also can and must jointly lead change efforts. In many respects this should be self-evident, but during the conference it was so patently demonstrated through the sessions led by stateless changemakers, as well as their powerful, insightful interventions to government and institutional representatives during the plenary panels. At times these exchanges were robust but they were open, meaningful and impactful in what felt like a genuinely shared space.

Equally important was the opportunity to learn from stateless changemakers about “do’s and don'ts” when engaging them in the advocacy and decision-making processes that impact their lives. We were reminded that engagement is not something that should be expected, or even requested, without providing proper support, remuneration and respect.

There is now an onus on us to disseminate this learning to other stakeholders with whom we work – including by drawing on the ENS community speaker policy. This was co-designed with stateless changemakers from our network, and sets out key principles when inviting individuals with lived experience to speak at events. None of us can claim perfect practice on how we approached this in the past, and we are all learning together as we move forward. We also need to reach further in thinking about not only how we more effectively centre stateless people, but also how we help equip them to engage in advocacy spaces on equal terms.

Ultimately, we know that when stateless people themselves help lead change efforts, it is most effective. Several inspiring examples  were shared at the conference, including how a Roma parliamentarian in North Macedonia recently had the decisive impact in getting new legislation adopted.

Photos by Robert Bonet, ENS

Secondly, seeing visible progress in addressing statelessness as an intersectional issue

Stateless people are of different genders, ages, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, abilities, religions and ethnicities. Therefore, the causes and consequences of statelessness can only be effectively addressed if it is understood that stateless people are not ‘just’ stateless but have multiple identities and experiences. A failure to hear these different voices to date has meant that the links between statelessness and racism, patriarchy, antigypsyism, ableism and other forms of oppression, have been poorly understood, contributing to statelessness being seen as a ‘niche’ issue.

Of course, this in itself is not a new understanding. However, the conference demonstrated the tangible impact of bringing together experts (both with and without lived experience) working on cross-cutting issues to deepen understanding of the interconnectedness of their work, and pathways towards solutions. This was particularly evident from a session ‘Living at the intersection: Exploring the nexus between statelessness and LGBTIQ+ rights’, as well as at sessions on children and minorities.

Thirdly, underscoring the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement to inspire change

In the run-up to the conference, we worked very hard to encourage attendance by not only civil society but also by policymakers and decision-makers. As a civil society network, we prefer to avoid being in a space only talking among ourselves. The conference in Madrid was our most successful event to date in achieving this aim, with almost a quarter of participants bearing this profile. Sitting alongside civil society and stateless activists on panels, we had high-level representation from the Spanish government, UNHCR, the Council of Europe, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the EU Asylum Agency and the European Parliament. This helped create a space where these stakeholders were not only “advocacy targets” but hopefully felt included within our change making efforts.

I don’t pretend that every positive sentiment expressed from the podium by these stakeholders will necessarily translate into concrete action. However, the mere fact that so many attended is hopefully a testament to the relationships we and our members have been building over recent years. And many of the statements and interventions made during the conference do seem significant.

For example, during the opening panel we heard UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs assert that “Working together with stateless people at the forefront, we have the opportunity to ensure a lasting impact on the lives of stateless people who struggle to access their fundamental rights across Europe”. Sitting alongside her, we heard Chair of the Fundamental Rights Agency Management Board, Jim Clarken, strongly endorse the relevance of ENS’s recommendations to protect stateless people forcibly displaced from Ukraine. And the Council of Europe Special Representative on Refugees and Migration, Leyla Kayacik, strongly highlighted the importance of access to nationality.

Similarly, during the closing panel we listened to the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee Chair, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, unflinchingly assert that “statelessness is an EU issue”. And we heard EU Asylum Agency Executive Director, Nina Gregori, unequivocally assert the Agency’s commitment to addressing statelessness, including planned concrete actions such as mainstreaming it across all their training programmes and introducing a new training module on identifying statelessness during asylum registration. This alone will be a big leap forward when it comes to improving protection for stateless refugees and migrants.

Equally welcoming was to hear EU Asylum Agency representatives during workshops asking stateless changemakers how the Agency can be better at involving and consulting them in their work. This openness felt like a real step change. Now the onus is on us all to continue to strive to strengthen and deepen this understanding and connectivity between stateless people and those who make decisions that impact their lives. Nobody pretends that this will be easy, but having discussion spaces like the conference make this seem possible.

Photos by Robert Bonet, ENS

And finally, what next in terms of impact?

It was no coincidence that we chose to organise our conference in Madrid given that Spain will assume the Presidency of the EU on 1 July 2023.  

Spain has one of the longest established statelessness determination procedures in Europe, as well as a strong legal framework to prevent childhood statelessness. We have been in dialogue with its government over the last 12 months, and on the eve of our conference we issued a public statement urging Spain to use its Presidency of the EU as a platform from which to galvanise improvement to law, policy and practice on statelessness in all EU Member States.

During the Presidency there is a particular opportunity to better protect the rights of displaced stateless people through ongoing negotiations on the EU Migration & Asylum Pact. This is a key objective under our #StatelessJourneys campaign, and in order to help support those involved with the process last month we prepared a briefing on Statelessness and the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

During the conference it was therefore hugely encouraging to hear Spain’s Sub Secretary of State for the Ministry of Interior, Isabel Goicoeche Aranguren, describe Spain’s strong commitment to prioritising statelessness during its Presidency, and her recognition that the Pact cannot be properly negotiated without addressing statelessness protection issues. As always, we and our members stand ready to work with Spain and all relevant EU and domestic actors to help make this a reality.

But whatever the outcomes of these negotiations or Spain’s Presidency, we hope and believe that the conference will fundamentally help reframe how we work together. By uniting our efforts and placing stateless individuals at the heart of our actions, we have a unique opportunity to build the coalitions required to achieve lasting change to improve the lives of stateless people across Europe.

Related topics