Thursday, 27 June 2013

No Country, No Rights: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness (re-post)

An estimated 12 million people worldwide are stateless, with no country to call home. They are not recognized as nationals of the countries where they live, and as a result are denied basic human rights. For many people, this situation arises because of gender discrimination in nationality laws. This occurs when nationality legislation prevents women from acquiring, changing, retaining or passing on their nationality to their children and/or their spouses on an equal basis with men. This discrimination must end and nationality laws must be changed.
The report is based on field research we conducted in Morocco and Egypt, which have enacted nationality legislation to address statelessness, and in Kuwait and Jordan, which still maintain gender discrimination in their nationality laws. Twenty-nine countries around the world, 11 of them in the Middle East and North Africa, still have discriminatory nationality laws that make it impossible for women to transfer their nationality to their children, or to their non-national spouses.
Being stateless has grave consequences, often leading to violations of fundamental human rights. Stateless people face many barriers and obstacles: without citizenship or identity documents they are unable to own or rent property, secure formal employment or access services such as public health care, education and social welfare benefits. Statelessness impacts individuals' ability to marry and couples' decisions to start a family. As one stateless woman in Kuwait who has no identity documents told our researcher, "I cannot get married. The court will refuse to allow me to sign a marriage certificate because I do not exist." It also impacts inheritance and property rights, leaving those affected unable to transfer their financial and material resources to their children. Not surprisingly, the research found that statelessness impacted mental health, with widespread depression reported among individuals and families affected.
The recent enactment of reforms to nationality legislation in Morocco and Egypt has enabled women to transfer their nationality to their children, thereby conferring rights previously denied. The reformed law of 2007 in Morocco states, "A child born of a Moroccan father, or a child born of a Moroccan mother, is a Moroccan child." The reform has led to a resolution of previous problems with regards to residency and access to public health care. The greatest impact of reforms in Egypt in 2004 has been the ability of families to remain in the country without fear of deportation and access to education and employment. The reforms in these two countries demonstrate the positive change in individuals' and families' lives when gender discrimination is removed from nationality legislation.
The Women's Refugee Commission recommends that governments take immediate steps to amend their nationality laws to allow women the same rights as men to pass on their nationality to their children and non-national spouses, with retroactive effect. We are also advocating for governments to provide access to basic rights for those affected by gender discrimination in nationality laws, in particular, access to education, health care, employment, identity and travel documents.
Many of the governments with these discriminatory laws have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in addition to being bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's time they live up to these obligations and reform their nationality laws to grant women equal treatment and stop the cycle of rendering generation after generation of children stateless because of whom you marry.
This post originally appeared on the website of the Huffington Post at

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

NGO Statement on Statelessness: delivered to UNHCR Standing Committee in June 2013

At UNHCR's June 2013 Standing Committee session, the following joint statement was delivered on behalf of NGOs about the problem of statelessness. 

STANDING Committee of the
High Commissioner’s Programme
57th Meeting
25 – 27 June 2013

NGO Statement on Statelessness
Agenda Item 3(b)

Madame Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This statement (available at: is being delivered by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (Quakers).  It has been drafted in consultation with, and is delivered on behalf of, a wide range of NGOs and aims to reflect the diversity of views within the NGO community.
            NGOs are encouraged by recent developments illustrating real progress in global efforts to tackle statelessness, many of which arise from pledges made during the December 2011 Ministerial meeting organised by UNHCR to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Statelessness Convention. At this meeting a total of 21 States pledged to ratify both the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. A further 11 States pledged to ratify the 1961 Convention, and one pledged to ratify the 1954 Convention. In 2012, five of those States acceded to the 1954 Convention and seven to the 1961 Convention.
            NGOs particularly welcome the work of some Member States towards the establishment of statelessness determination procedures, including in Brazil, Costa Rica and Uruguay in the Americas region. The recent introduction of a UK statelessness determination procedure similarly serves as a useful example to the vast majority of European states who do not yet have dedicated procedures in place, despite having ratified the 1954 Statelessness Convention. It is hoped that pledges made by the European Union at the General Assembly in October 2012 signify a sea change in the priority it affords to tackling statelessness which has hitherto been largely absent from its agenda. Also welcome are current proposals to establish a statelessness determination procedure in the U.S. as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Against the overall relatively limited progress made implementing State pledges in the Africa region, the recent reform of the Zimbabwe constitution stands out as a positive example and NGOs note that the reform of its nationality law and effective implementation will be key to ensuring that the mass statelessness issues there are resolved. Likewise to be applauded are recent improvements to Russian nationality legislation, which should help reduce statelessness in that country. At the same, it remains of significant and enduring concern that so many individuals are still stateless following the break-up of the former Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, including large numbers of ethnic Russians residing in Estonia and Latvia.      
            Equally, NGOs are encouraged that over the last decade many States have reformed their nationality laws to address gender inequality, including five states from the Middle East and North Africa. At the December 2011 Ministerial Meeting, two states pledged to introduce reforms in that regard. Nevertheless, 29 States around the world – including 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa - still discriminate against women in their right to pass their nationality on to their family, which is causing statelessness or at least contributing to the its perpetuation in many situations. We encourage all countries to reform their nationality laws to lift gender discrimination in line with international standards.             
            NGOs expect that UNHCR will continue to address the massive and protracted statelessness problems worldwide through adequate programming and staff resources, even as the organization struggles to deal with so many large-scale emergencies. The plight of stateless Rohingya over the past decades, culminating in the violence which began in June 2012, demonstrates the strong nexus between protracted statelessness, vulnerability to human rights abuse and discrimination, persecution, internal displacement and forced migration. While recognising the need for humanitarian aid and protection for displaced populations, UNHCR is also encouraged to address the root causes of arbitrary deprivation of nationality that results in statelessness for such populations in order to achieve durable solutions that respect and protect the human rights of all concerned.       
            NGOs urge UNHCR to continue its efforts to mainstream statelessness and the right to nationality in all relevant UN processes and to cooperate with its sister agencies to address this issue. In particular, NGOs encourage greater cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  We also encourage UNHCR to continue to dialogue with and provide technical assistance to States to reduce and prevent statelessness.
NGOs are encouraged by the growing interest of students, academics and research institutions in statelessness. It is hoped that the First Global Forum on Statelessness, which is to be held in September 2014 in The Hague, will serve to strengthen partnerships between academia, UNHCR and NGOs on statelessness research and capacity building activities.
However, despite progress, an estimated 12 million people are still not recognized as citizens of any country in the world. Without the protection of a government, they are stigmatized and often live in extreme poverty without access to education, health care or legal processes that shield them from abuse and exploitation. NGOs therefore applaud the recent statements by High Commissioner Guterres calling for the eradication of statelessness within a decade. Such ambition is necessary in order to mobilise the broad spectrum of international actors and resources required to make real progress towards achieving this objective. Meeting this goal will also require stronger public messaging, awareness-raising and forums to hear the voices of stateless persons themselves.       
In this regard, NGOs support the recent call for the adoption of an international day of observance on statelessness.  If implemented, this could deliver positive impact comparable to that already achieved in other fields such as through International Refugee Day. Next year, as the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Statelessness Convention, we hope that the first international day on statelessness will stand as a sign of collective resolve to reduce and prevent statelessness and to protect all stateless persons.
Finally, Madame Chair, we encourage all governments that made pledges to report on their progress at the 2013 Executive Committee meeting in three months time.

Thank you, Madame Chair.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Statelessness consultations in Geneva

This week, I attended the annual UNHCR-NGO consultations for the first time. This is a 3-day event during which civil society partners of the UN Refugee Agency descend on Geneva and engage in a structured dialogue (or sometimes monologue) with one another and with UNHCR staff. Before coming, I wasn't quite sure what to expect - I found it hard to picture what a 'consultation' with some 300 participating NGOs might look like or what the outcome would be. As I sit at the airport now, waiting for my flight home, I am still digesting the experience. Overall, I would say that it was exhausting but productive, with the most beneficial aspect being the chance to catch up in person - during a very short space of time - with many of our existing partners and discuss ongoing and possible future projects, as well as to make new connections that will hopefully lead to all sorts of new opportunities. Without attempting to give a comprehensive account of what went on this week, below is a reflection on some of the highlights...
Launching our research with the Women's Refugee Commission
My colleague Zahra Albarazi headed for Geneva a few days before me in order to participate in a so-called 'side event' during the lunch break of the Human Rights Council sitting last Friday. She was the principal researcher for our study that mapped the impact of gender discrimination in nationality law in terms of how it contributes to statelessness and what knock-on effects this has. The research focused on the Middle East and North Africa region, where Zahra undertook several field trips during the first months of this year, namely to Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco. The Human Rights Council side event in which the findings of this research were presented also marked the official launch of the report and the beginning of advocacy work by the Women's Refugee Commission (who took the initiative for and funded the project). The report, an evocative photo-essay and two absolutely fantastic short advocacy videos which show the human dimension of this problem can be found on WRC's website. The launch successfully out of the way last week, I was able to join Zahra and our WRC counterparts and participate in a number of smaller and more detailed briefings on the project in the margins of the NGO consultations. The response, especially to the stories told in the videos by those directly effected, was very impressive and we have real hope that this project can help to contribute to a better understanding of the need to continue to push for the reform of nationality laws to allow women to pass nationality to their children. We certainly don't want any more women to feel guilty or depressed because they married a foreigner or for couples to feel pressure to divorce in a desperate attempt to give their children a chance of acquiring a nationality and securing a better future.
Statelessness retreat

Immediately before the official (and rather imposing) UNHCR-NGO consultations kicked off, UNHCR convened a smaller group (+/- 30) of organisations and individuals specifically active in the field of statelessness for a 'retreat', to discuss how to improve collaboration and make more of an impact. A retreat in nature, not just in name, we convened at a picturesque but Spartan monastery outside Lausanne. In addition to exchanging good (and less good) experiences and providing updates on planned activities so that we could all think about ensuring greater complementarity of our work, we also had an active discussion about the need to a global network, coalition or movement of some kind to really take on statelessness. There seemed to be consensus that now is the time to act and that with the momentum that exists behind statelessness, we perhaps need to set the bar higher and formulate a ‘big’ ambition to work towards. What exactly this bigger goal or campaign around which we should all be uniting, was still up for discussion at the end of the retreat, but agreeing that it may be time to identify such a goal is certainly an important first step.
UNHCR-NGO consultations
During the NGO consultations proper, statelessness was put on the agenda for one of the thematic break-out sessions and an entire afternoon was dedicated to further discussion. This session was attended by somewhere in the region of 75 individuals (from my own quick and rather crude head-count), bringing in more voices than those which were involved in the retreat. Here again, there was a discussion of good practices and common outstanding challenges, in particular on: how to move governments to make (then keep) commitments in the field of statelessness, how to tackle protracted situations of statelessness like that of the Rohingya in Myanmar and how to take advantage of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Statelessness Convention next year to make strides on the issue. I had the honour (and daunting task) of moderating the session, which turned out to be rather enjoyable since I was able to abuse my position at regular intervals to add my own thoughts on ideas or questions raised. Personally, I found the last part of the discussion which was all about ‘what now?’ the most interesting and useful. It was quickly apparent that, within the room at least, a consensus has been reached about the challenges posed by statelessness but also the opportunity to really make a difference on this issue if existing momentum can be consolidated. The discussion, as at the retreat, therefore quickly turned to a crucial question that needs to be addressed: coalition or cause? It’s something of a chicken-and-egg discussion, the crux of which is this: do we need to focus our energies on further growing and organizing a coalition of organisations to work on statelessness and push this issue forwards or do we need to – with those already engaged – identify a common cause around which we can rally and subsequently hope to draw in and activate others? My own sense at the moment is that the latter approach might be more effective, since I think it will be easier to entice organisations that have to date been hesitant to get involved in the issue to become a part of a global movement if the foundation for such a movement has already been laid with a few organisations taking a lead role and publically announcing their ambition. What that ambition could be also seems to be crystallising as several organisations expressed their support for the goal that has, in fact, already been enunciated by UNHCR High Commissioner Guterres: the eradication of statelessness within the next decade. Realists would likely be quick to suggest that this is an ambition which is inevitably beyond our reach, yet there is something inspiring about the sentiment and to dare to set ourselves such a goal (and publically commit to it) would, I think, enable us to collectively channel our energies and set out a roadmap that – even if only partly achieved – could bring real and lasting change for the issue. If we could, for instance, even achieve the eradication of childhood statelessness in the next ten years and ensure that no more children start out life without a nationality, this would be a major and massively worthwhile achievement. In short, I for one came away with a new perspective on our work and the task that lays ahead of us and I am quietly hopeful that over the course of the next year or so, we will begin to be more daring and more ambitious in our aims.
Other bits and bobs
Besides promoting the findings of our research project with WRC and actively participating in all of the general statelessness discussions, I was also able to make some strides on other matters during my stay in Geneva. Together with some of the other steering committee members of the European Network on Statelessness – who were also in town for the NGO consultations – we were able to hold some useful side meetings to discuss a strategy for tackling statelessness in Europe. One of the most fruitful of these was a gathering of NGOs in which UNHCR’s Europe Bureau Director also participated and gave voice to the plans that they are laying for the issue in this region. It was encouraging to hear of the commitment not just to participating actively in activities around the commemoration of the 1954 convention next year, but longer term, to really find solutions to bring back the number of stateless people in the region. The openness of the discussion between UNHCR and NGOs in this region and the added value of ENS as a regional network representing NGO experiences and interests, offers massive advantages in helping to translate all of the ideas into actual action. Another good experience this week was the chance to speak up for involvement of the academic community in work on statelessness and to appeal to both UNHCR and NGOs to reach out to university partners and draw them into their activities wherever relevant. I was very pleased to discover that I was not the only academic present and even more pleased to make a number of very interesting new contacts that will, I hope, lead to some form of collaboration with universities, including in Japan, South Africa and the US. So, plenty to follow up on in the weeks and months to come and fingers crossed that by the time of next year’s NGO consultations we will have formed and consolidated further partnerships – and perhaps even achieved the beginnings of a global movement – on statelessness.
Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva – A springboard for the adoption of an International Day on Statelessness?

A recent blog (re)posted here considered the non-emergence of statelessness as an issue, and a similar process of reflection has led the European Network on Stateless (ENS) and the Tilburg Statelessness Programme to call for the adoption of an international day of observance on action to tackle statelessness. We are urging UN Agencies and civil society organisations alike to rally together and lobby the UN General Assembly to make this a reality. The annual UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva next week provide a tailor-made opportunity to test support for this initiative and hopefully to generate momentum towards its eventual realisation, which could go a long way towards finally helping to bring the statelessness issue out of the shadows.

It seems indisputable that statelessness has remained a hidden crisis for too long. Hence a recent relative increase in international resolve to address statelessness can only be welcomed. Greater attention and resources dedicated to statelessness by UN Agencies, increased ratifications of the statelessness conventions, pledges on statelessness and new procedures to identify and protect stateless persons by states around the world are all positive signs of a sea change. Equally important is growing activity and expertise on the issue amongst NGOs and academics. These examples show the world is beginning to catch up with the complexities and massive human impact of this man-made problem. However, despite the strong nexus with refugee related issues and the immense human rights impact of statelessness, it is still very much a niche area that hasn’t sufficiently made it onto the curricula of universities, the agendas of NGOs or the policy priorities of states to the extent that it should.
To provide some perspective, the UNHCR estimates the global stateless population to be 12 million. Most agree that this is a conservative estimate, and as efforts to map statelessness in countries around the world are undertaken, we are becoming more aware of both the extent of the problem and the extent of our ignorance in relation to it. UNHCR has a much better grasp of refugee figures; in 2012 there were 10.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR and a further 4.8 million refugees of concern to UNRWA. Additionally, 15.5 million internally displaced persons receive protection and/or assistance from UNHCR. Despite the similar sizes of these three vulnerable populations, no comparison can be made between the widespread nature of the awareness, expertise and resources on, and resultant protection available to refugees and even IDPs, as opposed to the stateless. 

It is widely acknowledged that international days of observance are an effective and practical way to raise awareness and generate momentum around an issue. According to the UN:


The 10th of December and the 20th of June are universally associated with human rights and refugees respectively. Observances on these days have over the years raised awareness on and the profile of the issues and challenges related to these respective fields and shed light on the work carried out by individuals and organisations in difficult environments. They have become annual celebrations of human rights and the rights of refugees, and times for introspection, assessment and review of past failures. They have contributed towards the development of discourses around these issues and the creation of a culture which is more conducive to their promotion and protection.

The adoption of an international day of observance on statelessness would have the potential to positively impact on the issue of statelessness in the same way. Given insufficient general awareness on statelessness, the benefits of having an international day of observance would arguably be greater still. Equally importantly, the time would appear right to try to take this initiative forward given recent momentum on the issue, and the fact that increasing numbers of individuals and organisations are starting to include statelessness within their mandates. The fact that ENS has attracted over 70 new members within a year of its launch is testament to that. Timing-wise hopefully we can also see a helpful correlation in that World Refugee Day was introduced in 2000, a year before the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Hopefully next year’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons provides a similar rationale and impetus to proclaim the first international day on statelessness to serve as a marker of collective resolve to reduce and prevent statelessness and protect all stateless persons.
All this being said, making the case for adoption and actually achieving a new international day of observance are two different things. It would be naïve to underestimate the challenges inherent in securing political support for this Call in the face of possible resistance relating to a perception among some states that there is already a proliferation of international days of observance. Equally it requires a sufficient groundswell of support from a broad spectrum of civil society organisations that this is a good and necessary idea. Without this, adopting an international day would be premature and perhaps even counter-productive. Finally, the initiative needs the considered backing of UNHCR at the highest level.

The NGO Consultations in Geneva next week provide the perfect opportunity to gauge opinion on this, and potentially to provide a springboard from which to get an international day adopted in time for the 1954 Convention anniversary commemorations next year. Hopefully we can already be encouraged by the fact that statelessness is such a visible and pressing topic for debate in Geneva newt week. As well as the formal statelessness session on the agenda there is also a UNHCR-organised Statelessness Retreat beforehand and two side events in the margins, including an ENS roundtable. It will be interesting to see what develops from these discussions.

This blog first appeared on the ENS website at Contact ENS Coordinator Chris Nash at for more information or to express support for this call. With enough backing we hope together to make an International Day on Statelessness a reality.

This blog also appears on the website of the European Network on Statelessness at