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

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