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