Friday, 13 January 2012

Looking back on 2011, an historic year for statelessness

As 2011 drew to a close, it was clear to anyone working in the field of statelessness that it had been an historic year. This was, of course, the year in which the Statelessness Programme was established, but more importantly it was a year of simply unprecedented interest in the problem of statelessness worldwide. There were two particular highlights that it is worth recalling now for the purposes of posterity. The first was the media campaign spearheaded by UNHCR in August which caused a brief but important flurry of interest in the issue from many mainstream news outlets and papers - listen here, for instance, to a BBC interview about statelessness with High Commissioner Antonio Guterres. The second undeniable highlight was the much-anticipated Interministerial meeting, convened by UNHCR, which would be a make-or-break moment in a lengthy campaign for action and pledges by states to more effectively address statelessness. While the event dealt with all of the issues under UNHCR's mandate, even before the closing address by the High Commissioner, it was clear that statelessness had stolen the limelight. To date the area of work to receive the least attention in most fora, statelessness succeeded in attracting several dozen state pledges and was a significant focus of a number of key speeches, including that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, the small but extremely dedicated team of statelessness experts became celebrities in the corridors of UNHCR's headquarters and the recipients of many warm words of congratulations. The meeting was summed up as a "breakthrough for statelessness", as illustrated in a great little video posted shortly thereafter on UNHCR's website.

Although somewhat overshadowed by reports of the achievements of the Interministerial meeting, another late-2011 development should not be neglected: the release of the first two in-depth studies of statelessness in countries of Western Europe. For us at the Statelessness Programme and for the also newly established in 2011 European Network on Statelessness, these reports provide invaluable amunition in the fight to get statelessness on the public and political agenda in a number of countries were the issue is a major concern. The first study released was that developed by Asylum Aid in cooperation with UNHCR about statelessness in the United Kingdom. It uncovered real difficulties in the statistical reporting on statelessness and indeed the identification of individual cases with a view to ensuring the protection of rights. The second report looked at the situation of statelessness in the Netherlands, drawing similar conclusions about the dire consequences of the lack of a procedure to establish a person's statelessness status. Both studies point to a worrying cycle of detention and destitution for stateless people, a trend that clearly underlines the urgency of taking steps forward to implement the reports' recommendations.

So, while 2011 was certainly an historic year for statelessness, it must be seen as the beginning, rather than the end of the story. 2011 witnessed the setting of a critical agenda for action and we must now seize on the momentum that has been gathered and the apetites that have been whetted for this issue. At the Statelessness Programme, we already have big plans for 2012, inspired in part by some of the past year's developments. This spring, we'll be doing a little research of our own into some of the areas flagged in UNHCR's report about statelessness in the Netherlands - after all, this is the country which plays host to our programme. We'll also be throwing our energy into a host of training activities, targeting all sorts of different stakeholders, from students to legal practitioners. Application are now, for instance, being received for our Statelessness Summer Course, organised in cooperation with Open Society Justice Initiative in July 2012. Keep an eye open throughout the year for more news on our site and for updates on the work of the European Network on Statelessness (http://www.statelessness.eu/, full website to be launched at this address in the spring).

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

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