Interview - Azizbek Ashurov, winner of the 2019 Nansen Award


Azizbek Ashurov is winner of the prestigious UNHCR 2019 Nansen Refugee Award for his work to support the efforts of the Kyrgyz Republic in becoming the first country in the world to end statelessness. He is a lawyer and the Director of Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders. We spoke about his work, his recent achievements and the importance of civil society networks in addressing statelessness.

Azizbek Ashurov - UNHCR
Photo: © UNHCR/Bektur Zhanibekov

The Kyrgyz Republic has become the first country in the world to end statelessness. Tell us about your work and its impact.

Kyrgyzstan made a giant leap forward when it became the first country in the world to conduct a country-wide campaign to identify and then resolve all existing statelessness cases in the country. This took place as part of a national campaign launched in 2014, and it involved the Government, civil society organisations and the UNHCR mission in Kyrgyzstan. More than 13,700 stateless people were identified, all of whom subsequently obtained a nationality through various naturalisation procedures. As part of the effort, my organisation Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders directly helped over 10,800 people. Perhaps against the global scale of statelessness, the achievements of a small country may seem insignificant, but I think the more important point here is the precedent of a single state eradicating statelessness.

Statelessness is an issue that personally affected me and my family along with many others in Kyrgyzstan at the time of the collapse of the USSR, giving me an understanding of what it’s like to live with an uncertain status and no nationality. From the start of my professional career, I have focused on the issue, because of my personal experience and knowing many others who were also struggling with statelessness. After hearing about each new case, I became more and more convinced of the importance of solving this problem. Unfortunately, at that time the issue didn’t attract much attention. But with like-minded colleagues, and with the support of UNHCR’s 2009 mapping study, which revealed the true number of those affected, we began speaking to the government about tackling the issue. We started work on the ground in 2014, when the government expressed its readiness to launch a country-wide campaign, which led to the success we spoke about before.

In October you received the prestigious UNHCR Nansen Award for your work towards eradicating statelessness. What does winning the award mean for you as well as others working on statelessness, and how do you think it will impact on what you hope to achieve in the future?

Here, I really want to make clear that while I was lucky enough to receive the award personally, I certainly consider it to be an acknowledgement of combined efforts by many different individuals and organisations. Undoubtedly, this award recognises everyone who continues to contribute to ending statelessness not only in my country, but across the world. I would also like to note the reference kindly given by ENS Director Chris Nash speaking about the significance of our achievements in Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asia region.

Also, in my opinion, the timing of this award, at the halfway point of UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign emphasises the urgency to address statelessness, which I think is a signal to governments across the world to follow through on the pledges they made this year at the High Level Segment in Geneva.

On the other hand, this award is a symbol of hope and a recognition that the voices of stateless people have been heard. I believe that it will give our work renewed energy and strengthen our faith in what we do.

At the same time, the award acknowledges the foundations of the philosophy of Fridtjof Nansen himself, in relation to his work to help stateless people, of which the "Nansen passport" is a vivid example.

We also got a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the issue among people who weren’t already aware of statelessness. I really hope that the example of Kyrgyzstan, where the efforts of the state were essential and received recognition through the award, will serve as a model to other countries in gaining confidence to take more active measures, and forge new alliances between civil society and states.

Among other things the award also recognises your role in setting up the Central Asian Network on Statelessness (CANS) the inaugural meeting of which ENS was very happy to attend in Almaty back in 2015. Can you tell us more about the network and what you have achieved since then, as well as plans for the future?

As I said before, without collective efforts, it would be impossible to achieve these results, not to mention receive such high recognition in the form of this award. Undoubtedly, the role and contribution of the Central Asian Network on Statelessness to the work in Kyrgyzstan cannot be overestimated. The creation and operation of the Network turned out to be very timely and significantly strengthened the position of national organisations in dialogue with the state in promoting activities to reduce statelessness. Given that only a couple of organisations in the country initially promoted the problem of statelessness, the creation of the Network, the following joint efforts and the emergence of a regional player became one of the main factors for raising statelessness higher up the state agenda.

I very much valued the support and example provided by the European Network on Statelessness, which significantly contributed to the creation and development of the Central Asian Network. I have written in more detail about the history of our strong cooperation with ENS in a previous blog but a few aspects are worth repeating.

The need to consolidate various national organisations working separately across the region had been brewing for a long time and due to our lack of experience in creating a network organisation, this idea was continuously postponed. Seeing and hearing about successful examples of such networks at the UNHCR-organised statelessness retreat in 2015 was an important galvanising factor. Encouraged by the examples of ENS and Red ANA, the initiative to create such a network in our region started to gather momentum. The success of this initiative was significantly enabled by the visit of ENS chair of trustees Allan Leas, who revealed in detail the model for creating ENS and, in addition, helped to address the scepticism of a number of participants. Thanks in part to the mentoring support of ENS, our network continues to grow rapidly.

Another significant moment was Allan’s follow-up visit earlier this year. He helped us develop a strategic plan for the development of the Network for the following years and shared experience in attracting international support. ENS has also helped connect us with new donors interested to support our work, along with UNHCR, which has been supporting the network since its inception.

The next main challenge for eradication of statelessness in particular in Kyrgyzstan and in the whole of Central Asia is to implement effective safeguards in nationality laws and, finally, to get all the states in the region to accede to the Statelessness Conventions and to implement the Convention provisions in national legislation, which undoubtedly will require even more effort to mobilise various parties and conduct a more thoughtful dialogue with states. These challenges require the consolidation of allies, where the role of the Central Asian Network on Statelessness and partners becomes more and more obvious. We will also rely on our international partners, such as the European Network on Statelessness, to help us push the issue up the political agenda in the region, where collaboration is seen as the most effective way to influence state actions.

Looking forwards, how can regional networks best collaborate and support one another as part of a growing global civil society coalition committed to tackling statelessness?

Here I can say with confidence that this kind of cooperation has already produced some positive results. As an example, I can point to our network.

Separately, during the High-Level Segment on Statelessness in October we had a very successful civil society side-event coordinated by ENS. The event boosted the collaboration of regional networks and organisations and is an example of a joint approach with a single message aimed at the entire international community, which has received tremendous attention. This recognition is also marked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, regarding the special role of the collaboration of civic organisations and the high appreciation of the partnership of civil society organisations and their networks with UNHCR in combatting statelessness worldwide.

Now everyone involved in the work understands the collaboration of regional networks as an obvious and necessary step. Any effective measures to achieve a common mission require systematic consolidation and a sense of a joint mission among a growing group of committed human rights advocates across the globe working on the issue.

Given the current challenging political climate, are you optimistic that statelessness can be eradicated? What makes you positive and what do you worry about?

As a result of the UNHCR’s High-Level Segment, we now have a single document containing 252 pledges by States, 73 by civil society organisations, and 33 by international and regional organisations to end statelessness. This document should become the main guideline for further actions, where the example of the Kyrgyz Republic can be considered evidence of the possibility of fulfilling these obligations.

My optimism is also reinforced by the fact that at the time of this interview I received the following news regarding the early implementation of these pledges by states in the countries of our region:

Firstly, the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan "On Amendments and Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Provision of Public Services" was endorsed by the upper (and final) chamber of the Parliament and enacted as of 9 December. The law implements amendments to the Code on Marriage and Family to ensure that all children born in Kazakhstan are registered at birth regardless of the legal status of their parents (press release). The Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health will amend all relevant by-laws and ensure implementation in 2020 (tentatively March 2020). I would like to recall that Kazakhstan formulated a pledge in this regard at the HLS with a deadline of January 2020 and through these amendments it just implemented the pledge ahead of the set deadline. Congratulations to everyone involved for this important achievement.

The next very important piece of news came from neighbouring Tajikistan, where Tajikistan's Parliament endorsed today an amnesty law that will positively impact some 20,000 stateless people and will greatly facilitate their naturalisation.

All of this undoubtedly became possible precisely because of the joint efforts and close partnership of various parties, including UNHCR, civil society and regional networks, the potential of which has really grown over the past five years, as they lead the implementation of our common mission.

All of the above gives me optimism to continue our work towards the complete eradication of statelessness as one of the burning human rights problems of our modern world.

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