Tuesday, 8 April 2014

An unforgettable experience working on statelessness with UNHCR sponsored by the Statelessness Programme

In March 2013, I started an internship that I had long awaited with much excitement. Through the International Statelessness Internship Award I had the opportunity to intern at the Statelessness Unit of the UNHCR Regional Coordinator’s Office in Bangkok and work on an assignment I found interesting, challenging, and intellectually stimulating. This blog is to share my internship experiences with students and potential recipients of the International Statelessness Internship Award.

I arrived in Bangkok one week before the start date of my internship to settle down and to discover the city. After a week of acclimatizing myself to a new environment I was excited to start work. On my first day, I attended a regional team meeting where everyone gives an update on what they are working on, those who went on mission share their findings, and developments and approaches to deal with specific situations in the region were discussed. After the regional team meeting, I sat down to talk about my terms of reference and which assignment would be best to start with the other members of the statelessness team Nick Oakeshott (Regional Protection Officer(Statelessness)) and Bongkot Napaumporn (Protection Associate (Statelessness)).

The main objective of my internship was to conduct a legal analysis of the nationality laws of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam (ASEAN member states). This study aimed to provide an explanatory analysis of nationality laws and possible gaps, and identifying good practices in the region relating to the prevention, reduction, and protection of stateless people that can set an example for other member states on how to tackle statelessness-related issues. The underlying reason for this study was based on recommendations to reduce and prevent statelessness in the migration context made by the participants at  the Regional Workshop on Statelessness and the Rights of Women and Children held jointly between ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (known as “AICHR”)and UNHCR.[1]

During the first week I was mainly occupied with background reading on the history of migration flows in Southeast Asia to obtain a better understanding of the situation and challenges in this region in relation to statelessness. I also read several studies on nationality laws and the main causes of statelessness in ASEAN member states that had already been completed in 2010 and 2011.[2]

Besides that, I also participated in other activities during the first week. For instance, I was invited to attend a regional policy meeting where staff at the senior level discussed key topics to further develop regional policy on protection issues, and to ensure that UNHCR policies at regional and national level are in line with global objectives. As a note taker it was a great opportunity to learn more about statelessness, maritime movements, Refugee Status Determination, and temporary protection in relation to certain groups of people in South East Asia.

During the 2nd/ 3rd week of March, I took the preliminary steps towards analysis of the nationality laws. I compiled a bibliography of all (legal) sources and verified whether the set of nationality laws and implementing regulations available on Refworld (UNHCR’s research tool available at www.refworld.org) were complete and up-to-date. Furthermore, I started writing a methodology and a plan of action for this study.

After feedback from my supervisors on the methodology, I started to analyze nationality laws. The nationality laws were assessed as follows: 

First, the relevant national provisions that relate to international standards to prevent and reduce statelessness were identified and further described by setting out the substantive and procedural requirements. Second, the substantial and procedural requirements listed in the relevant national provisions and the relevant international standards were compared in order to verify whether the national provision complies with the relevant international norm. Third, the international standards that are binding on the relevant ASEAN Member State were stressed, taking into account treaty obligations, and any reservations and declarations that a state has made, as well as norms of customary international law.

I received feedback from my supervisors after every country analysis which was always a great learning moment, especially in terms of how to explain in a clear and systematic way why a specific provision in a nationality law can cause statelessness. Interpreting nationality laws from ASEAN Member States, looking up relevant information provided through (non) treaty based monitoring mechanisms and other sources gave me a better understanding of the challenges that are faced in the region in relation to statelessness. Due to the fact that almost none of the ASEAN Member States are Parties to the Statelessness Conventions and are therefore not bound by them, the analysis included consideration of whetehr or not a State would hypothetically be in line with the Statelessness Conventions, as well as on the statelessness related international standards that are binding on the relevant ASEAN Member State (e.g. Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). 

At the end of July, I started with the write up of the report. I noticed that the more I looked into the nationality laws, the more I came across new interesting issues relating to statelessness. Whilst writing a report of my findings, I realized that statelessness can in theory be caused in countless ways. Besides that, it should also be noted that a gap exists in law and practice which leads to new cases of statelessness that cannot be derived from analyzing the nationality laws on its own.

Looking back at close to 6 months interning at the Regional Coordinator’s Office, the first thought that comes into mind is that it has truly been a valuable experience. I first took interest in statelessness - the how and what, when I was interning for nearly a year with the Statelessness Programme where I looked into statelessness in the Netherlands. It comes with no surprise that I was thrilled to receive the Internship Award and get an opportunity to learn more about statelessness in South East Asia, a region where relatively more people are affected by this phenomenon compared to the Netherlands. Not only have I learned more about statelessness in South East Asia, I have also been able to put knowledge into practice that I gained by participating in the Statelessness Summer Course and a bachelor course on nationality, statelessness and human rights offered at Tilburg University.

Most importantly, with this internship I have gained a better understanding of how statelessness fits in the field of human rights, the relevance of (non) treaty based monitoring mechanism and the way UNHCR implements its mandate to prevent, protect and reduce (and hopefully eradicate) statelessness by, among others, gathering information on statelessness, promoting accession to the Statelessness Conventions, dealing with cases of stateless persons and supporting legislative changes/ improvement to existing procedures to help stateless people acquire a nationality.

Furthermore, during this internship I had the chance to look into a case of a stateless person and to sit in several UN security debriefings and I was fortunate enough to attend events aimed at promoting awareness for international human rights. Some of these events were for instance; lectures given by experts working in the field of human rights and professors on different human rights related issues, a red carpet premiere of the ‘Girl Rising’ movie which tells the stories of nine brave girls from around the globe who have had to overcome hardship in their lives, the Refugee Film Festival in conjunction with World Refugee Day to shed light on some of the hardships encountered by families torn apart by war.

I would encourage future recipients of the International Statelessness Internship Award not to only focus on their own project but also try and get involved in the day-to-day statelessness work and participate in other events. I would, for instance, recommend integrating in your terms of reference to assist the Statelessness Officer(s) in their daily practices one day a week besides working on your own project. This would not only give more variation in your own tasks but it would be an opportunity to get to know the organization better and to find out if you are keen on working at UNHCR in the future.

Accommodation and living in Thailand:
Before flying out to Bangkok, I looked into apartments that are for rent in areas near the office and made an appointment with a reliable agent to view one of the apartments that she rented out. When I was in Bangkok I realized that it is easy to find apartments and condos for rent so there is no need to look into housing arrangements too much prior to arrival. I decided to stay in a hotel for a week and look for accommodation in the meantime. The average cost of renting an apartment varies greatly, depending what your requirements are.

Funding received from the Statelessness Programme is sufficient to cover accommodation and living in Bangkok. Accommodation can easily be found between 200 to 300 euros if you live outside the city center and the use of public transport (BTS) is very convenient. It is also possible to find shared apartments. It is very common to find apartments and studios without a kitchen since it is convenient and cheaper to buy  food from of the many food stalls on the street for less than 2 euros a meal. Besides that many restaurants can be found that serve delicious dishes from all regions of the world. I opted to look for an apartment within walking distance from the office (downtown Bangkok) and preferred to have a kitchen. These factors have to be taken into consideration because your monthly expenses will increase and you may need some of your own savings.

Bangkok is an fantastic city to live in because it is a blend of Asian and Western traditions. There is always something to do, people are very sociable and I personally like the culture, the norms and values. Interning at UNHCR also means being introduced to a big international community, many interns and expats are working and living in Bangkok and it is easy to meet them and exchange experiences. I would recommend to save some money and plan trips and undertake activities during weekends such as exploring the city, visiting temples, going to the beach or one of the islands, visiting national parks, going out with colleagues, having drinks on one of the many rooftop bars and enjoy the stunning view over the city, or seeing a live game of ‘Muay Thai’ (a combat sport) and horse races in the heart of Bangkok.
To conclude, I am very grateful to Laura van Waas for giving me the opportunity to enhance my knowledge on statelessness, and to the other members of the Regional Office’s statelessness team, Nick Oakeshott and Bongkot Napaumporn for taking time to share experiences about statelessness related issues in South East Asia and providing elaborate feedback on my work throughout the entire internship. I have learned so much more than I initially imagined before starting the internship. I truly value this experience, that has given me so much insight into a field of study I have become so passionate about and that I couldn’t have necessarily learned in a classroom setting.
I am excited to be back in Tilburg and to complete my masters in International and Human Rights Law and I am thrilled to be interning again at the Statelessness Programme and to learn more about statelessness by interviewing stateless persons in the Netherlands.
Sangita Jaghai, Recipient of the first Statelessness Programme International Internship Award

[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN High Commissioner for Refugees and ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, Report of the ASEAN Regional Workshop on Statelessness and the Rights of Women and Children , 19 November 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50f674c42.html [accessed 21 October 2013].
[2] See for instance, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Regional Expert Roundtable on Good Practices for the Identification, Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness and the Protection of Stateless Persons in South East Asia, 2 March 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4d6e09932.html [accessed 21 October 2013].

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