Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Tilburg hosts successful pilot of statelessness course

Between the 23rd and the 27th July, a bright sunny Tilburg welcomed the gathering of thirty participants and eight lecturers assembling to discuss the phenomenon of statelessness.  The first Summer School on Statelessness, an initiative by the Statelessness Programme at Tilburg Law School and the Open Society Justice Initiative, successfully provided a stimulating curriculum and atmosphere for all involved.  Through lectures, case-studies, discussions and group-work the Course covered many of the topical theoretical and practical issues stemming from the notion of statelessness. The Course equally draw significantly from the participants experiences which came from around the world, including Burundi, Kazakhstan, Thailand, South Africa, Mexico and Slovenia amongst many others, and which ranged from differing fields, such as UNHCR, NGO’s, academia, and government.

Over the past few years the international community has witnessed a growing concern of the true magnitude and impact of statelessness, however, much work remains to be done in terms of developing a full understanding of the phenomenon and importantly in building the required capacity to address some of the attached problems.  It was with these two gaps in mind that the Statelessness Summer Course provided an interesting forum in offering a unique opportunity for learning, reflecting and discussing the challenges that statelessness presents and, importantly, trying to develop tangible strategies to work on the issue.  Beginning with a reflection on the concept of statelessness and nationality, the course went on to deal with legal and policy issues associated with statelessness such as the status of stateless persons, their human rights and right to international protection and ways to research and document statelessness.   The course included smaller team work on regional issues where participants were able to tailor the knowledge they had acquired towards trends and issues that affected their regions.

Lecturers also came from a varied background with differing focuses, enriching further the debate.  These included Prof. Dr. Gerard-René de Groot Professor of Law at the Universiteit Maastricht,   Gábor Gyulai from  the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Julia Harrington Reddy and Sebastian Kohn from the  Equality and Citizenship program at the Open Society Justice Initiative, Mark Manly head of the Statelessness Unit at UNHCR, Dr. Benyam Mezmur research fellow at the University of Western Cape, Prof. Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree lecturer at the Institute of Human Rights Studies and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand and Zahra Albarazi from the Statelessness Programme.  These experts had a mélange of academic knowledge and practical and regional experience to offer.

The most interesting feature was the way in which participants and the lecturers were able to benefit from the knowledge and professional experience of both the lecturers and their fellow participants.  The week concluded with an action-oriented session which saw the participants discuss how they plan to work more on this issue following the end of the Course.  We are looking forward to following up on how these proposed initiatives develop and are excited that the course has been successful in developing a strong and enthusiastic network of future advocators.

We would like to thank everyone who took part and hope to be able to welcome a new group to Tilburg at a future edition of the Statelessness Summer Course!

Zahra Albarazi, Statelessness Programme, Tilburg Law School

Friday, 27 July 2012

GUEST POST: A Global Campaign to End Statelessness - The Time Has Come

For too long statelessness has remained a sleeper issue. This is surprising considering that UNHCR's latest statistics confirm 3.5 million stateless persons worldwide and estimate that the number is closer to 12 million. Furthermore, the problem has persisted all around the globe.  
In Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia produced millions of stateless persons who fell between the cracks of new nationality criteria adopted by successor States or were unable to satisfy administrative requirements for acquisition of a new nationality.  Historically, racial and ethnic discrimination (often codified in law) against minorities has been a major cause of statelessness. Twenty-six countries found in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, still retain nationality laws which prevent women from passing on their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers, thus creating a risk of statelessness that can be passed down from generation to generation. Recent flare-ups, from the violence between the Rakhine and Muslims in Myanmar to protests by the Bidoun in Kuwait, find a common denominator in decades-long statelessness situations in these States.
Since its creation, UNHCR has worked to provide international protection and find durable solutions for stateless refugees who are covered by its Statute and by the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, it was only in 1995 that the UN General Assembly passed a resolution conferring upon the Agency a global mandate to identify and protect stateless people and to undertake activities to prevent and reduce statelessness. At the Ministerial Meeting convened by UNHCR in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, an unprecedented number of States pledged to take action on statelessness: to prevent and reduce the problem and to recognise the status of stateless people. More than 30 countries undertook to accede, or take steps to accede, to one or both of the Statelessness Conventions.
Implementation of many of these pledges will be assisted by the issuance of recent UNHCR Guidance on: the definition of a stateless person; the establishment of statelessness determination procedures; the status to be afforded to stateless persons when they have been identified; and forthcoming guidelines on preventing statelessness amongst children in accordance with the principles of the 1961 Statelessness Convention.
Although the last few years have witnessed a heightened awareness of the plight of stateless people and an increased willingness on behalf of States to address statelessness, there is still a need for a global groundswell of concerted and coordinated action by various actors, including civil society groups, scholars, the media and affected individuals themselves, to end statelessness. Given the links between the causes and consequences of statelessness and other well-supported human rights issues, including gender discrimination, children’s rights and prevention of arbitrary detention, part of the task is to better understand the points at which these issues and statelessness intersect and to engage a wider pool of advocates to include action on statelessness as part of their advocacy strategies.
To encourage this process, on 3 July 2012, UNHCR convened an informal half-day strategy meeting on the margins of its 2012 Annual NGO Consultations.  A total of 26 NGO representatives participated from organizations working on statelessness based in 13 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  Key proposals to increase action and awareness on statelessness by NGOs and to advance a global network or coalition to end statelessness included:

  • advocacy by international and field-based NGOs on statelessness concerns before international human rights mechanisms (for example, the Universal Periodic Review, treaty bodies and special procedures);
  • improvement of existing and creation of new opportunities for collaboration between UNHCR and NGOs to address statelessness; and
  • development of a global matrix of NGOs working on statelessness  to improve networking, coordination and joint action, including advocacy within the UN system.

UNHCR is very pleased to see the emergence of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS). The actors working on statelessness need to set ambitious objectives to address this global problem.  A first step towards our common goals is to involve a greater number of organisations, to ensure better coordination and exchange of information and to develop a common research and advocacy agenda.  ENS is leading the way at the European level.
For a range of documentation on statelessness, please visit UNNHCR's Refworld page: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/statelessness.html
Mark Manly, Head UNHCR Statelessness Unit and Radha Govil, UNHCR

This Blog originally appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness (www.statelessness.eu), a civil society alliance committed to address statelessness in Europe, of which the Statelessness Programme is a founding member.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

GUEST POST: Stateless in the Netherlands - Stuck in paradise?

The Netherlands is a splendid country in many ways. Despite amusing political bickering, it’s a stable democracy. Despite the occasional judicial mishap, there’s a strong and independent legal system. Despite austerity and budget cuts, poverty is scarce and social security broad. And, contrary to popular belief, most trains run on time. In short, for most Dutch people life is a breeze – relatively speaking of course. However, entry to this paradise is notably restricted. In this case, citizenship is the key to get in.

According to the Central Bureau for Statistics, more than 2.000 stateless persons live in the Netherlands. Government offers them little to no support or opportunities, in either practical or procedural terms. Another staggering 83.000 people are of ‘unknown nationality’, referring only to those people that are actually registered with their municipality. Surely this is a curiously high figure for a state that can pinpoint with eerie precision what my income is, or how many people in the country are called Jan. But when it comes to our thousands of stateless persons, or the tens of thousands of ‘unreturnables’ for that matter, statistics are at a loss. What’s more, the human consequences of statelessness are shrouded in even more uncertainty. This blog, however fleetingly, seeks to shed some light on this.

In 2011 we interviewed 25 stateless and unreturnable persons for a UNHCR report about statelessness in the Netherlands. The diverse and mostly dispiriting stories feature a number of similarities, but one issue really stood out: the pervasive incidence of lengthy, repeated and hopeless periods of detention. Numerous respondents independently described the Kafkaesque practice of being detained for months, in a regime no different from or worse than criminal prisons and without any indication as to when they would be expelled or let go, only to be released because a judge ruled that ‘the perspective of deportation was absent’. In an especially wry display, interviewees were then given notice to leave to country within 24 hours, though how exactly they were to arrange this without travel documents or, for that matter, a nationality, remains vague.With no means or right to either stay in or leave the country, most respondents were arrested a second or third (and in some cases even fourth and fifth) time  and then sent back to alien detention awaiting deportation. Usually, not being able to present identification documents caused the arrest in the first place. Obviously, while in custody no country offers consular protection or advocates for a stateless person’s rights. This vicious cycle, and the general sense of dehumanisation that goes along with it, has a tremendously detrimental effect on the mental state of stateless persons, who often do not dare to leave their house or shelter at all anymore: “we are going to bed fearing that they can come and arrest us at night, we are scared of any car parked under our window, of any knock on our door, we are scared of any minivan with tinted glass”, a couple from from the former Soviet Union commented.

Another problem faced by stateless people in the Netherlands pertains to the difficulties in accessing healthcare that should by law be available to all residents of the country (legal status is irrelevant!). Various interviewees have indicated that they were either refused essential care, or postponed potentially important check-ups for fear of being “discovered”. Other elemental needs, a roof over one’s head in particular, are similarly difficult to access. Various respondents are homeless, and scrape a living on the streets. For those who have found shelter, eviction poses a constant threat. To add insult to injury, a majority of respondents struggles with psychological issues, often PTSD and depression related. These mental issues are either a token of traumatic experiences in the past, or have been caused or aggravated by the disheartening judicial cul-de-sac most find themselves in. Feelings of uselessness, of worthlessness and of stupefying boredom are their greatest enemies. As one man from the rarely-recognised nation of South-Ossetia recalled: “two weeks ago I called a volunteer centre, asking them how I could help – time is all I’ve got. When I told them I do not have a nationality, they said they could not hire me, as I couldn’t be insured. I can’t even work for free”. He then added: “it would be nice to be considered a human being. After all, nobody is born with a passport”. Many of the interviewees complained about the lack of procedural solutions to their plight. Due to the absence of a dedicated statelessness procedure in the Netherlands, stateless persons end up ‘hopping’ from one ill-fitting (asylum) procedure to another. This is particularly pointless, since many stateless persons do not even wish to apply, or even consider themselves eligible, for asylum. Indeed, various interviewees displayed no desire whatsoever to stay in the Netherlands, either because of a longing to return home or because of profound disillusionment with life in exile. As Igor Skrijevski commented: “we are buried alive in the Netherlands, and we never wanted to be here in the first place”.

A final point: no homogeneous stateless population exists in the Netherlands, nor does it in most of Europe. This is not just a demographic trivium, but has as a consequence that the potential for collective action is severely diminished. Many other countries faced with challenges related to statelessness feature a specific and coherent group at particular risk (say, Nubians in Kenya, Crimean Tartars in Ukraine or Rohingya in Myanmar). Indeed, as Brad Blitz and Maureen Lynch already concluded, “findings from Kenya and Ukraine suggest that large stateless populations have considerable agency and may set agendas for reform”. However, the Dutch stateless population is diverse, dispersed, unorganized and thus in reality not a “population” at all. Both the action-inhibiting heterogeneity of stateless people in the Netherlands as well as the presently ill-defined policy towards them, increase the need for external pressure and advocacy. Because the way things stand now, stateless people find themselves in a paradise lost.

A detailed preparatory research report on statelessness in the Netherlands, which includes a number of case studies, can be found online here.

Karel Hendriks, Statelessness research consultant

This Blog originally appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness (www.statelessness.eu), a civil society alliance committed to address statelessness in Europe, of which the Statelessness Programme is a founding member.