Friday, 29 June 2012

Statelessness in 2012: one step forward, two steps back?

The year 2011 ended on an unmistakable high in terms of momentum to address statelessness worldwide, with the issue somewhat stealing the show at UNHCR’s December Inter-ministerial meeting, as one state after another affirmed the importance of tackling the problem and pledged to take action. Entering the new year, things were still looking promising with a number of countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas already making good on their promises and acceding to one or other - or both - of the statelessness conventions, or taking steps to introduce a statelessness determination procedure in their legal system. 

Meanwhile, in early 2012, the newly elected Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, indicated his intention to continue his predecessor's work in highlighting problems of statelessness across the continent and expressed a particular interest in raising the issue of stateless children. Europe also saw the launch of the European Network on Statelessness at the start of June 2012: the first significant regional initiative by civil society to collaborate closely in order to 'strengthen the often unheard voice of stateless persons and to advocate for full respect of their human rights'. And Slovenia's "erased" have just won a landmark victory before the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, which ruled that the government's deletion of some 18,000 names from the civil registry books in 1992 - which left people both stateless and classed as illegal residents - was a violation of the right to family life (article 8 ECHR) and the principle of non-discrimination (article 14 ECHR). This case, Kuric v. Slovenia, provides crucial confirmation of the European court's competence to rule on matters relating to the enjoyment of nationality - given the right circumstances of the case - and its interest in acting on statelessness.

Each of the developments noted above - and more besides - constitutes an important step forwards in addressing statelessness and demonstrates that the issue is now, at last, receiving significant international attention. Yet, if we flip the coin over, the other side exposes some extremely disquieting statelessness-related developments. From Sudan/South Sudan, UAE, Syria, Dominican Republic, Libya and elsewhere comes news of emerging cases of statelessness and/or further stagnation or deterioration of the situation of stateless people. 

Most worrying of all - and distressing enough to take the shine off any global efforts towards the resolution of statelessness - is the news from Myanmar (Burma). For several weeks now, reports pouring out of the country have brought word of an ever-worsening situation for the stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state, the Rohingya. What was initially described as a flare of ethnic tension has since deteriorated into shocking reports of killings, the destruction of tens of thousands of homes and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Those attempting to flee the violence by sea are meeting perhaps even greater risks on their perilous journey, with reports of helicopters firing on boats full of these stateless refugees (including children). And those that do make it to shore in neighbouring Bangladesh being turned back out to sea in their overloaded boats with only a small supply of fresh of water and rice or bread as this news footage shows

While the recent moves towards a more democratic state have cast a positive light on the future of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi's recent international tour - a highlight of which was her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991 - has inspired hope in many, the situation of the stateless Rohingya does not look set to benefit from these developments any time soon. Indeed, Suu Kyi herself has declared that she "does not know" if the Rohingya should be regarded as Burmese and now a group of eight ethnic parties allied with Myanmar's opposition movement has rejected the idea that the Rohingya should be recognised as one of the country's ethnic minorities. There is no doubt that the current treatment of the Rohingya both inside Myanmar and as hundreds seek protection abroad is casting a deep and worrying shadow on international developments in the field of statelessness in 2012. 

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

Friday, 8 June 2012

GUEST POST: The birth of the European Network on Statelessness

A year which ended with UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, hailing a “quantum leap” in global efforts to tackle statelessness was also an opportune moment for civil society actors to examine how best to coordinate and strengthen their contribution in support of such efforts.

In July 2011, and with that aim already in mind, a small group of organisations - Asylum Aid, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Equal Rights Trust, Praxis and the Tilburg Statelessness Programme - started a conversation which resulted in the creation of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS).

A Steering Committee was formed to guide the development of the Network and to put in place solid foundations for its future expansion and sustainability. The Steering Committee met again in December 2011 and it was decided that Asylum Aid would initially host and coordinate the Network pending steps necessary to set it up as an independent organisation with its own legal identity based in the UK. A further meeting in Tilburg in April 2012 finalised an activity plan with particular focus on launching the ENS website along with other work to raise awareness and invite broader participation in the network.

It was evident when forming the Network that the statelessness problem requires an effective and coordinated response by civil society actors. In today’s Europe statelessness occurs both among recent migrants and among people who have lived in the same place for generations. Most countries in the region frequently encounter stateless persons in their asylum systems. In the Balkans and elsewhere many Roma remain stateless as a result of ethnic discrimination. Statelessness is also a continuing reminder of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Yet despite the scale of the problem, most European countries have no framework to effectively deal with statelessness and tackling this requires major law and policy reform.

Given that at present there is relatively limited understanding of the issue by both government and civil society actors there is an equally compelling need for more awareness-raising, training and provision of expert advice. ENS stands ready to provide this.

Another key challenge derives from the marginalisation of stateless persons - notably described as “legal ghosts” by former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg. While urging that the problem of statelessness be afforded greater priority he went on to emphasise that “Many victims have little possibility themselves to be heard and in many cases are silenced by their fear of further discrimination”. Acutely recognising this phenomenon, ENS is dedicated to strengthening the often unheard voice of stateless persons in Europe and to advocate for full respect of their human rights.

With the ENS website now launched, and briefing events planned in Brussels and at the UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva next month, we hope that many more organisations working on statelessness will get involved with the network. As the ENS membership grows, the pool of thematic and country expertise will grow with it – bringing new opportunities to achieve real impact.

We are obviously only at the start of a journey.  But by working together and pooling our resources hopefully we can make a real difference in tackling statelessness and helping to bring Europe’s “legal ghosts” out of the shadows.

Chris Nash, Asylum Aid & European Network on Statelessness

The European Network on Statelessness is open to NGOs, research centres, academics and other individuals who wish to apply for associate membership. For further information contact ENS Coordinator Chris Nash at or visit our website at