Interview with Melanie Khanna - Chief of UNHCR's Statelessness Section


ENS caught up with Melanie Khanna, Chief of UNHCR’s Statelessness Section based in Geneva. In her role she coordinates UNHCR’s work to address statelessness globally, including through the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness and the #ibelong campaign. She leads a global team to promote the identification and protection of stateless persons.


You have now been in post for almost 12 months so, based on your experience to date, what do you see as the most promising opportunities as well as the greatest challenges with regard to the #ibelong campaign’s goal of eradicating statelessness by 2024?  

Firstly, let me say thank you for catching up with me--it’s a pleasure to speak to you and to get to connect with your rich network. These are exciting times in the fight against statelessness because there are people like you out there helping to raise awareness as never before and strategizing about how to make use of this greater understanding. Statelessness isn’t yet a household word, but we will get there. We’re in a transitional period as the #IBelong and #StatelessKids Campaigns gather steam. The challenges include the fact that the global displacement and migrant crises are raising the stakes when it comes to the politics of identity and belonging, including because of national security concerns. But we’re seeing progress that for now at least overshadows the negative trends. And the fact that legal identity and birth registration have been framed as development issues as part of the 2030 Agenda is very helpful, as is the general political resolve that no one should be left behind.

Some observers point to the ambition of ending statelessness within a decade as being entirely unrealistic while others welcome the galvanising impact that the launch of the #ibelong campaign has already had on efforts to tackle statelessness. What was UNHCR’s rationale and motivation for launching the campaign, and what progress has already been made?

Well you know the decision to launch the Campaign was made before my time but it’s clearly ambitious and meant to be galvanizing. One of the key messages is surely that this is a solvable problem. It’s a man-made problem and we can fix it. We’ve seen a number of regional and national initiatives spring up in response to the Campaign –on the regional side the most notable include the Abidjan Declaration, the commitments on statelessness in the Brazil Declaration, and the European Council conclusions. Nationally we’ve seen accessions to one or both of the statelessness conventions from Italy, Belize, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and Turkey since the launch. We’ve seen the adoption of National Action Plans to address statelessness in many countries, perhaps most notably in west Africa; legislative reform in a handful of countries including Estonia, Armenia and Montenegro; and progress in granting nationality to stateless persons in Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia and Cote d’Ivoire, just to name a few. There’s increased attention to statelessness-related issues by the Human Rights Council and other human rights mechanisms. All of this reinforces UNHCR’s own efforts and boosts our spirits.

What are the key ingredients for making progress with efforts to address statelessness?

It really depends on the situation. Where political will exists the resolution and prevention of statelessness may just be a matter of technical assistance and support to states interested in ensuring their law and practice adheres to the highest international standards, as well as some support to individuals and communities pursuing naturalization. Where legal reforms are required and political will doesn’t exist, success typically requires those with influence getting organized. This may be civil society groups, diplomatic partners including the EU, the UN, or all of the above acting in concert and conveying the same “key messages” to the government in favor of reform. Governments need to see such reforms as in their fundamental interest, and it’s up to all stakeholders and the international community, including development actors, to figure out how to influence the government’s calculation of its interests.

The current priority of the #ibelong campaign is preventing childhood statelessness, a theme also taken up by ENS in its #StatelessKids campaign. Why did you choose this theme and how do you view the effectiveness of collaborative work to date? What will be the next priority theme, and why?

To focus on children affected by statelessness is a natural place for advocacy efforts on this issue to start, as everyone understands that children are innocent and don’t deserve to suffer the stigma and privations that generally come with not having a nationality. In addition, children only get to be children for a short time and that time is completely formative –if they miss out on primary education or basic nutrition or pediatric healthcare there’s no going back and it will prejudice their opportunities their whole lives. So it’s urgent that we collectively call attention to childhood statelessness and move swiftly, and #StatelessKids has been a terrific initiative in this regard. When we can work in complementary ways like this we enhance the uptake of the messaging and the impact. We’re thinking about the Campaign’s next theme now. A focus on minorities is one strong possibility, as most stateless persons in protracted situations are minorities of one kind or another –ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic, or other—and that minority status is typically linked to their statelessness status.

Our Network values UNHCR as a key strategic partner. In your view, how can the two organisations best work together and complement one another's efforts? How can UNHCR support the continuing development of ENS, including as a model for UNHCR’s collaboration with emerging civil society networks in other regions?

As the first ever regional network dedicated to work on statelessness, ENS has a special place in our hearts for collaboration with UNHCR. It also has an important role to play vis a vis other existing and emerging civil society networks such as ANA in the Americas and SNAP in Asia when it comes to sharing knowledge and lessons learned. I already mentioned that I think our respective awareness raising about the impact of statelessness on children has been highly complementary; in addition to #StatelessKids the research you’ve put out on laws in Europe is eye opening for many. We must continue to find ways to “echo” each other and complement one another. You’re able to keep a sustained zoom in on Europe, which by itself is important as we’re working globally and Europe isn’t the first place that comes to mind, and yet the issues are real and many - as you’ve shown. I hope going forward we can strengthen our strategic cooperation and advocacy efforts at the regional and national level.

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