Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Birthday wishes are just the beginning of the journey...

After an evening spent baking and an early morning start, the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness Birthday Wishes Tour finally kicked off in Utrecht. The eager team of four, two from the Tilburg law School Statelessness Programme and two from UNCHR, commenced at 9.30am with a meeting with STIL, a local NGO that provides support to stateless individuals. We then continued on to the Landelijke Ongedocumenteerden Steunpunt (national foundation supporting undocumented people), where we were presented with an exceptional, hand-made birthday card in honour of the anniversary. Here, Evelien Vehof, one of the journalist behind the Citizens of Nowhere project, also joined us to make a wish. Spending the morning with individuals who work on the ground providing social support and highlighting the plight of stateless persons gave us our initial insight into the eagerness of the people working directly on the issue to push the agenda of combating statelessness forward. 

With the birthday cupcakes delicious reputation developing and some poignant birthday wishes gathered, we left Utrecht (on time!) making our way to the next stop; Amsterdam. We commenced our tour in the capital meeting with Vluchtelingenwerk, Hamerslag & van Haren lawyers and Amnesty International. These three organizations, already involved in advocacy and research on stateless groups and issues related to them, all showed their commitment to be involved in a unified national effort in working on the issue in the near-future. Eduard Nazarski, Director of Amnesty in the Netherlands, summed up the overall sentiment well in his wish… “that governments combat statelessness – everyone has the right to a nationality!”

Dokters van de Werald then went on to give us an interesting perspective on the difficulties of stateless groups accessing basic medical rights, and added their wish to the growing pile.  We were then extremely surprised to be treated to music, song and dance by the people at the Wereldhuis, our last stop in Amsterdam, who we were very sad to leave.  Here we were privileged to meet a committed group of individuals providing help to anyone who needed it in their community, regardless of nationality or legal status, and to meet several stateless people who had themselves suffered from the inaction of the authorities to solve their situation. 

After fewer than eight – rather rushed, cake-filled meetings - we were already developing a more detailed picture of statelessness in the Netherlands. The mix of organizations we were meeting with, lawyers working on individual cases, international NGOs with an understanding of the global phenomenon, and community support organizations that helped us put faces and real-life stories behind this universal problem, were together sketching a colourful map of the problems stateless groups face and the steps needed to help.

The genuine enthusiasm and commitment of the people we were meeting provided the energy the team needed to continue the frenzied tour. So, despite hunger kicking in, there was no time to waste as we re-bundled into the car where our dedicated volunteer driver navigated us towards The Hague - to everyone’s surprise – only very slightly behind schedule.

We started our stay in the Hague at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we met jointly with Lionel Veer, the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, and Willem van Genugten, the dean of Tilburg Law School (which hosts the Statelessness Programme). We were very pleased with the interest they showed in the ongoing research initiatives on statelessness and to hear them pledge their support for furthering the advocacy efforts that will stem from the research done in this field. Underway to a brief stop at UNHCR’s own office in the Hague, where we delivered a cake to Rene Bruin, the head of office, we added to our growing collection of hopes and aspirations a number of birthday wishes that were being sent in from people abroad who were not able to join us in the tour.

We were then pleased to be received by Jan Pronk, former Development Cooperation Minister and UN Special Representative in Sudan at his home. We sat with him and his wife in their delightful garden, discussing at some length the legal limbo that stateless individuals find themselves.  We  collected their wish and proceeded to end our tour with a warm reception by a team of senior advisors at the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities who shared their understanding of issues of stateless communities throughout Europe, adding a new dimension to the otherwise largely Dutch-focused day. The HCNM’s wish: “700,000 stateless persons in the OSCE region are counting on the Statelessness convention to end their exclusion. Ratify and implement it!” 

After this last meeting the birthday wishes campaign continued with the team collapsing in a café and finally blowing out their own candles, tasting the cupcakes and making their own wishes. All involved were genuinely surprised and gratified by the reception and passion we repeatedly met over the course of our frantic day on the road.  It was clear that the issue of statelessness was a rising and enduring concern for those we met, while advocacy opportunities were disappointingly limited due to a lack of information on the overall situation in the country and of awareness of the issue generally. 

Everyone encountered was furthermore keen to join the Statelessness Programme in their official launching event, Voiceless, Faceless, Stateless, which will be the next step in raising awareness of the issue and further strengthening ties between the organizations involved in order to advance efforts on all levels.  This will be held on November 3rd and will also be a good opportunity to discuss the findings of the UNCHR report which details the humanitarian and legal situation of statelessness in the Netherlands, which will be officially launched on October 31st.  All the organizations, through their own capacity, have been dealing with issues of statelessness, and all were confronted with obstacles while trying to address the problem.  This varied from finding difficulties in helping stateless children access vaccination programmes in Rotterdam to dialogue on how the ‘’legal stay’ requirement in Dutch law which violated the very convention we were celebrating was obstructing legal solutions. These and other topics were noted down for the agenda of future meetings with to discuss in greater depth what response is needed to better address statelessness in the Netherlands.
The only regret of the day was that we were not able to spend more time talking to and learning from the individuals and organizations we met. This will have to wait until the next opportunity to sit around a table with one another, perhaps over more cake, as we take the next step in the challenging journey towards tackling statelessness and turning some of these wishes into reality. Watch this space as the journey continues…

For your enjoyment: a list of all the wishes collected!

Wishes from around the Netherlands on 30 August 2011

OCSE High Commissioner on National minorities (The Hague)
I wish… 700,000 stateless persons in the OSCE region are counting on the Statelessness convention to end their exclusion. Ratify and implement it!

Amnesty International (Amsterdam)
Eduard Nazarski: I wish… Governments would combat statelessness. Every individual has a right to a nationality!
Annemarie Busser: I wish… Nationality forms the access to a lot of fundamental human rights; stateless people should never be put in immigration detention

Jan Pronk (The Hague)
I wish… The Netherlands government complying with the 1961 Convention, and strip the legal stay condition

Evelien Vehof, Citizens of Nowhere (Utrecht)I wish… For nation states to use their power to take care of the stateless and recognize then as citizens

Dutch Refugee Council (Amsterdam)
I wish… Its about people, not about borders! Don’t let people be the victims of conflicts between states!

Lionel Veer, Human Rights Ambassador of the Netherlands (The Hague)
I wish… This campaign will help solve the problem and help the ‘victims’

UNHCR (The Hague)
I wish… All Stateless persons be recognized and can start life again

Landelijk Ongedocumenteerden Steunpunt (Utrecht)
That the statelessness convention will be used more effectively in the Netherlands.

Dokters van de Wereld (Amsterdam)
I wish… That stateless have better access to health, more info that stateless children have the right to be vaccinated

Willem Van Genugten, Tilburg Law School (The Hague)
I wish… That much more attention will be given to an much more REAL ACTION will be undertaken in order to tackle the problem

STIL (Utrecht)
I wish… That statelessness soon only means there are no more states. No one is illegal!

Neil Blomhous, Lawyer with Hamerslag & van Haren (Amsterdam)
I wish… That the Dutch authorities would approach the problem of statelessness with an attitude towards solving the problem instead of dumping it on the (de facto) stateless person

International Organisation for Migration (The Hague)
I wish… that all countries become signatory and abide to the convention of 1954 relating to the Status of Statelessness Persons and the convention of 1961 on the Reduction of Statelessness
Wishes collected at the Wereldhuis (Amsterdam), including from stateless people

I wish… All humans to be respected as such, regardless of their nationality or beliefs

I wish… That one day we all walk through boundaries without any questions of documents but love

I wish… The Dutch government fulfils her noble promise in allowing the statelessness sufferings and see them not as numbers but as human beings!

I wish… The statelessness people will be recognized to be known to enjoy a better life at wherever countries they are in

I wish… That justice will always exist

I wish… The Netherlands can become a home country for these people who are stuck here because no country accepts them

Wishes from the ‘birthday wishes campaign team’

Femke Joordens, UNHCR Nederland
I wish… No country should tolerate that children are born stateless 

Laura van Waas, Statelessness Programme
I wish… That over 100 states pledge to concrete action to address statelessness at the ministerial conference this December

Zahra Albarazi, Statelessness Programme
I wish… That states recognise and ensure the fundamental human rights of stateless persons and not see nationality as prerequisite for enjoying rights

Karel Hendriks, statelessness researcher for UNHCR
I wish… That all states would establish a dedicated statelessness procedure. After all, statelessness is a legal fact

Mark van Waas, dedicated driver for the campaign
I wish… That states who don’t feel statelessness is a big issue wake up and tackle the issue

Wishes sent in from others around the world

Sebastian Kohn, OSI (New York)
I wish… To end statelessness amongst children through committed law and policy
reforms. And follow @statelessness

Amal Dechickera, Equal rights trust (London)
I wish… Reduction of statelessness is as important today as it was 50 years ago. We wish that in 50 years time there will be no need for a convention.

Praxis (Serbia)
I wish… Every person in the world could have a state!

Nick Oakeshott, Asylum Aid (London)
I wish… That all European states establish Statelessness Determination procedures following the excellent examples set by France and Spain.

Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW (New York)
I wish… For stateless biduns in Kuwait, after fifty years of waiting, to get citizenship through a fair and just procedure.

Maureen Lynch, International Observatory on Statelessness
I wish… This anniversary year, equal attention and efforts would be paid to ensuring nationality rights for all the worlds stateless people.

Cynthia Morel, Independent Consultant working on nationality
Over the course of the last 50 years, the Convention has enabled countless individuals to shed the shackles of statelessness, leading to full and fruitful lives. While this anniversary is cause for optimism, let us not forget the millions who remain at the margins of society, in desperate need of recognition.

Campaign tools: cake and explanatory card

Eduard Nazarski, Amnesty International

Jan Pronk, former Dev. Coop. Minister

Human Rights Ambassador Lionel Veer and Tilburg Law School's Willem van Genugten

A beautiful card hand-crafted by the staff at LOS in Utrecht

Mirjam Koppe, Dokters van de Wereld

Staff at the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities

Wishes and music greeted us at the Wereldhuis in Amsterdam

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Update: inspirational wishes for statelessness

What a day! Here's a sneak preview of just some of the inspiring people who took the time to make a birthday wish for the Statelessness Convention. A massive thank you to everyone who got involved. Full report to follow tomorrow (31 August)...

Birthday Wishes Campaign gets started…..

The scrumptious cupcakes are ready and the campaign to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness is heading out on the road….!

The Stateless Programme of Tilburg Law School is packing everything into the car, ready to tour the Netherlands today, Tuesday 30th August, to honour this date. Birthday cupcakes shall be delivered to organizations and individuals interested in Statelessness across the country.  Recipients will be asked to make a wish outlining their aims of what they want to see in addressing the issue of Statelessness.   The objective is to raise awareness of the phenomenon of statelessness in the Netherlands and to encourage further debate among stakeholders. 

Our early start will begin in Utrecht following on to Amsterdam, then The Hague and ending our evening in Rotterdam.  The tour will include meetings with international and national NGOs, government officials, UN bodies and stateless people.  Amnesty International, Wereldhuis,  former Dutch Minster Jan Pronk, the High Commissioner for National Minorities, the IOM and the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador are just a few of the meetings we have lined up.

We will also be handing out a card with information about statelessness, the work of the Statelessness Programme and details of follow-up activities, including a symposium entitled “Voiceless, Faceless, Stateless” that will take place in Tilburg on 3 November 2011, to all the 50 cupcake recipients.

Join us on our journey; see the pictures and read the wishes throughout the day on our twitter account @statelessprog

Happy Birthday Convention!  

Friday, 26 August 2011

Ground-breaking media campaign on statelessness

This week is an historic day for statelessness. Just a few days before the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness reaches its 50th birthday, UNHCR rolled out a ground-breaking media campaign on statelessness. Never before has there been so much attention for this issue from the world's press. In honour of this important development and because it makes such good reading - below, in full, is the UNHCR press release that kicked it all off...

Want to hear some of the highlights explained by UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres himself? Click here to listen to a short interview on BBC radio.


25 augustus 2011 – Around the world today there are millions of people who are not recognized as citizens of any country. On paper they don’t exist anywhere. They are people without a nationality. They are stateless.

UNHCR is mandated to prevent statelessness. On August 25, we will launch a campaign to shed light on this often elusive issue – aimed at decreasing the number of stateless worldwide. The campaign launch comes just days before the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness on August 30, 2011.

There are numerous causes of statelessness, many of them entrenched in legalities, but the human consequences can be dramatic. Because stateless people are technically not citizens of any country, they are often denied basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, and health care. They may not be able to own property, open a bank account, get married legally, or register the birth of a child. Some face long periods of detention, because they cannot prove who they are or where they come from.

“These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo,” says António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world. Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalizing whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict.”

UNHCR estimates that there are up to 12 million stateless people in the world, but defining exact numbers is hugely problematic. Inconsistent reporting combined with different definitions of statelessness means the true scale of the problem remains elusive. To overcome this UNHCR is raising awareness about the international legal definition while improving its own methods for gathering data on stateless populations.

While the full scope of statelessness across the globe is only just becoming known, UNHCR has found the problem is particularly acute in South East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. However pockets of statelessness exist throughout the world and it's a problem that crosses all borders and walks of life.

New States
State secession carries a risk that some people will be excluded from citizenship if these issues are not considered early on in the process of separation. The world welcomed the birth of South Sudan in July, but it remains to be seen how new citizenship laws in both the north and south will be implemented.

"The dissolution of states, formation of new states, transfer of territories and redrawing of boundaries were major causes of statelessness over the past two decades. Unless new laws were carefully drafted, many people were left out,” says Mark Manly, head of the statelessness unit at UNHCR.

In the 1990s the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia left hundreds of thousands throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia stateless, with marginalized ethnic and social groups bearing the brunt. While most cases of statelessness have been resolved in these regions, tens of thousands of persons remain stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Women and children at risk
An unfortunate consequence of statelessness is that it can be self-perpetuating. In most cases when the parents are stateless, their children are stateless from the moment they are born. As a result the destitution and the exclusion of statelessness are visited upon yet another generation. Without a nationality, it is extremely difficult for children to get a formal education or other basic services.

Discrimination against women compounds the problem. And they are among the most vulnerable to statelessness. UNHCR analysis reveals that at least 30 countries maintain citizenship laws that discriminate against women. Women and their children in some countries run a particular risk of becoming stateless if they marry foreigners. Many states also don’t allow a mother to pass her nationality on to her children.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. States as diverse as Egypt (2004), Indonesia (2006), Bangladesh (2009), Kenya (2010), and Tunisia (2010) have amended their laws to grant women equal rights as men to retain their nationality and pass their nationality on to their children. Changing gender discriminatory citizenship laws is a particular goal of UNHCR's efforts surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Stateless Convention.

Ethnic discrimination
An underlying theme of most stateless situations is ethnic and racial discrimination that leads to exclusion, where political will is often lacking to resolve the problem. Groups excluded from citizenship since states gained independence or were established include the Muslim residents (Rohingya) of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, some hill tribes in Thailand, the Bidoon in the Gulf States. While most Roma do have citizenship of the countries where they live, thousands continue to be stateless in various countries of Europe. Often such groups have become so marginalized that even when legislation changes to grant access to nationality, they encounter major obstacles to obtaining citizenship.

In recent months Croatia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Panama have all made the historic decision to become party to one or both of the international treaties on statelessness.

Yet the the issue remains a low priority in many countries due to political sensitivities surrounding statelessness.

The number of parties to the two stateless conventions is an indicator of international commitment: as of August 25, only 66 states are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines who is considered to be a “stateless person” and establishes minimum standards of treatment. Only 38 states are parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides principles and a legal framework to help states prevent statelessness. The total number of UN member states is 193.

“After 50 years, these Conventions have attracted only a small number of states,’’ says Mr. Guterres. “It’s shameful that millions of people are living without a nationality – a fundamental human right. The scope of the problem and the dire effects it has on those concerned goes almost unnoticed. We must change that. Governments must act to reduce the overall numbers of stateless.”

While there are some success stories that have positively addressed statelessness, much more needs to be done. UNHCR aims to get the issue on the public agenda encourage states to accede to the two stateless conventions, reform nationality laws and take additional measures to end statelessness.