Wednesday, 24 September 2014

300 participants, 70 countries, 1 topic: The First Global Forum on Statelessness

Reassuring and invigorating – giving a sense that, together, progress really is achievable on statelessness

A unique opportunity to interact with experts who are normally dispersed all around the world

A chance to look at old questions in new ways and to pose new questions that have not been explored before

These are some of the sentiments expressed by participants of the First Global Forum on Statelessness which was convened by Tilburg University and UNHCR from 15-17 September 2014. After two years of planning and preparations, 300 participants from 70 different countries came together at the Peace Palace in the Hague to talk about one topic: how to solve statelessness. With more than a hundred presentations and many more ideas and experiences exchanged during the conference sessions as well as the coffee and lunch breaks, it is impossible to do justice to this event and to everyone who contributed to it in a single blog. But, it is also impossible to resist the temptation to share some of my own highlights from the Forum, so here are just a few of the things that stood out for me…


Even as we drove a rental van full of conference paraphernalia through the gates of the Peace Palace the Friday before the event to set everything up, the ‘First Global Forum on Statelessness’ still didn’t feel real. What would the venue look like once 300 people arrived? Would they indeed arrive? What would they expect from the Forum? Would we be able to meet those expectations? With such a diverse audience, not just in geographical terms, but also in the exciting mix of academics, NGOs, governments, UN, legal practitioners, stateless and formerly stateless persons, journalists and others, would the conference actually “work”? Would our ideas be relevant to one another, would we feel a sense of shared purpose and would we even find a common language to talk about the issue? These are the things our team wondered about quietly as we busied ourselves stuffing conference bags, loading the resource table with books and brochures and setting up the registration desk.

When the Monday morning of the Forum arrived, the feeling of anticipation and of nervous excitement only grew as participants queued (for rather too long, sorry about that!) to pick up their registration materials. Slowly but surely the foyer became populated with a mixture of familiar and new faces, the group swelling to an impressive crowd by the time the opening session began. I had the honour to address the plenary first and briefly welcome everyone to the event before UNHCR Director of International Protection, Volker Türk, gave his keynote speech – and I had given careful thought to what I should say for the occasion. As I climbed the few steps to the podium and took my place behind the microphone though, the force of 300 pairs of eyes, all filled with their own look of anticipation and all fixed on me, made any opening words I had come up with slip my mind entirely. For a heartbeat I worried that I would find nothing to say at all to the waiting crowd, but instead I shared the one simple thought that consumed me in that moment: that it was quite a thing to see so many people gathered to show their commitment and give their time to trying to address this long-neglected problem of statelessness (or something less coherent perhaps, but that was the gist of it). Pausing to take it all in created a picture in my mind that I will cherish. To me it marked the end of any and all residual feeling that to work on statelessness is a lonely profession! And, for me at least, that was when anticipation made way for pure enjoyment of the long-awaited opportunity to listen, to talk, to question and to debate the many different challenges and opportunities around statelessness that we face today.     


Throughout the three densely packed and intense days of the Global Forum, there was a palpable “buzz” to the atmosphere. Whether it was because it was the first such event, or the setting of the Peace Palace basked in glorious late-summer sunshine, or the backdrop of the imminent launch of the ambitious UNHCR-led campaign to end statelessness by 2024, or simply the chance to dive straight into real and meaningful discussions about problems and solutions (without the often necessary precursor of explaining what statelessness is or exploring basic questions around causes and impacts), or a combination of these factors… there was a sense of this being an event packed with not just content, but also meaning. It is without a doubt that, although the participation of persons directly affected by statelessness was sadly limited by logistical constraints, the voices of those stateless and formerly stateless persons who were able to attend and share their stories contributed greatly to this sense of a very meaningful gathering. Many people I spoke to about what they would take away with them from the Global Forum talked of the inspiration they drew for meeting or listening to the contributions of Railya, Dipu, Lara, Aor, Hasan and Juliana. It reminded us all that we need to take more time to understand not just the difficulties faced by stateless persons, but also how they experience those difficulties, how they perceive their situation and what change they would like to see or contribute to. While it will remain a challenge to convene people affected by statelessness because that very status often stands in the way of travel it is absolutely vital to do more to include them in discussing and working towards solutions – not just for them, but with them.

The Global Forum was not just a site for inspiration, but also for innovation. So many of the presentations made – from the keynotes to the panels to the poster sessions – explored new dimensions of the problem of statelessness. So many people have arrived at the issue from such different directions, from an interest in the regulation of international surrogacy arrangements, to a concern about the growing use of nationality policy as a ‘tool’ in the fight against terrorism, to a desire to better understand how and why irregular or forced migration are prompting statelessness… Posters looked at country situations we have long known little to nothing about, like statelessness in Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia and Iran. The occasion of the Forum was also seized upon as an opportunity to launch or announce new statelessness initiatives. The launch of the new Cambridge University Press publication ‘Nationality and Statelessness under International Law’ was celebrated – as Professor Linda Kerber’s generous and beautifully crafted introduction pointed out, exactly 55 years after Paul Weis’ work of a similar name was published just as the UN was then debating a convention to eliminate statelessness (i.e. what became the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness). The re-launch of the European Network on Statelessness, a thriving civil society network of organisations and individual experts committed to addressing statelessness in Europe, was celebrated as the Network has just completed the important step of establishing as an independent Charitable Incorporated Organisation with a revised structure and ambitious plans for the future. And the establishment of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion was also announced and celebrated, with the beginning of a consultation process through a ‘wall of BIG IDEAS’ and collecting feedback on online support for future networking and information sharing on statelessness that the Institute hopes to set up. This Institute, by the way, when it starts its work in earnest on 1 January 2015, will be my exciting new home and will continue and build on the work of the Tilburg University Statelessness Programme which is being reinvented, strengthened and expanded through this new, independent initiative – but more on that on another occasion.

Participating in the Global Forum was, in itself, a motivating experience, but for some there was an added incentive – or perhaps, better said, reward – for the work they have put into this issue. The 2014 UNHCR Awards for Statelessness Research were presented during the closing plenary, honouring the best student research on statelessness at undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels completed in 2013-2014. Last year, when these awards were inaugurated, the ceremony was a virtual one as the recipients were spread out in different locations around the world. This time, however, the Forum had brought so many people working on statelessness together in a single place that as luck would have it, all of the award recipients could be addressed in person. Professor René de Groot did a masterful job of presenting the Jury Report and delivering the award certificates on behalf of the team of international academic experts who assessed the nominated work. Two students from Tilburg University were among the winners, including one of the Global Forum’s conference hosts in fact – Maria Jose Recalde Vela – whose undergraduate thesis explored the relationship between identity and nationality, from a legal and socio-psychological perspective. But it was particularly special to see the prize for best doctoral research on statelessness presented for the first time, awarded to Dr Jason Tucker for his PhD thesis completed at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Bath, entitled Challenging the tyranny of citizenship: Statelessness in Lebanon. Next month, a series of special blog posts will be dedicated to the winners of the 2014 UNHCR Awards for Statelessness Research and we also intend to post a video of the award ceremony when this is ready. Meanwhile, I hope that even if there may not be a similar occasion at which to present the certificates in the years to come, the awards will continue to motivate students to contribute to identifying and investigating critical questions in the field of statelessness.

While 300 people gathered in the grounds of the Peace Palace for the Global Forum, many more followed the event in some way from a distance. Participants at the Forum shared some of their experiences and lots of snapshots from the event through twitter and facebook, using the hashtag #statelessness2014 (more than 500 tweets went out with this hashtag over the 3 days of the conference). Emma Batha, journalist with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, not only participated in the media panel at the Forum but also filed a series of stories before and during the event, helping to highlight some of the current challenges as well as to draw attention back to the human impact of statelessness. Several Dutch newspapers, including Trouw and NRC Next were prompted by the Global Forum to run their own stories about statelessness and there was some national radio coverage. The Guardian, Newsweek, Channel News Asia and Al Jazeera’s Inside Story also all reported on the issue and the Forum. This dissemination of information through the media and the enthusiastic sharing of photos and experiences by participants of the Forum within their own personal and professional networks creates an important ripple-effect, generating a better understanding of the phenomenon of statelessness within a much wider circle of people. Already we have had lots of additional sign-ups to the post-conference mailing list and we will now take up the task of developing the space and the tools for a continued conversation on the issue.

That leaves me to end this blog by saying a massive thank you to everyone who contributed to make the First Global Forum on Statelessness a success, whether it was by sharing your expertise, posing a question, spreading the word or in another way. And most importantly, let’s stay in touch!  

Dr Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager of the Statelessness Programme; Co-founder of the new Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

Thursday, 11 September 2014

GUEST POST: Community Paralegals and the Legal Empowerment Approach to Statelessness

Mohammad Javed is an Urdu-speaking entrepreneur living in the middle of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Looking to grow his business, Mohammad decided to travel to India to start importing spare auto-rickshaw parts for his own repairs and to sell to others. Yet Mohammad was unsure of the process through which he could obtain a passport. He was also intimidated to approach the passport authority office. While a landmark 2008 High Court judgment confirmed Urdu-speakers’ Bangladeshi citizenship and ended their 40 year struggle with statelessness, Mohammad had heard stories of fellow Urdu-speakers being denied passports due to their identity and residence in urban “camps” established by the ICRC after Bangladesh became independent in 1971.

A continent away, Yusuf is a 19-year-old of Nubian ethnicity living in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Yusuf wanted a birth certificate to access basic services and to reinforce his identity as a Kenyan citizen. For three months, he tried to apply for a birth certificate on his own. He repeatedly went to the relevant government office, which required a trip into town, but each attempt to apply was met with harsh treatment and requests for additional supporting documents beyond those required of most Kenyans. After many failed attempts, Yusuf gave up on getting a birth certificate.

Both Mohammad and Yusuf belong to minority groups that are either emerging from a protracted situation of statelessness or are at risk of statelessness due to difficulties in acquiring legal identity documents like ID cards and passports.  Despite laws and court decisions that establish their citizenship rights, lack of legal knowledge, complex application procedures, and a lack of proper implementation of the law – sometimes outright discrimination – all stand in the way. 
How, then, can Mohammad, Yusuf, and the millions of others like them around the world protect their rights as citizens – obtaining legal identity documents that allow them to prove their nationality, obtain employment, travel abroad, open a bank account, or enroll in school?

Community-based paralegals, also known as grassroots legal advocates, can bridge the gap between law and real life. They use knowledge of law and government, and skills like mediation, education, organizing, and advocacy to seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Paralegals not only work alongside clients to resolve a legal issue, but also focus on empowerment -  leaving each client in a stronger position to deal with similar problems in the future.

In Bangladesh, paralegal Nahid Parvin from the Urdu-speaking community
accompanies a client to a Government registration office
Namati, an international legal empowerment organization, is dedicated to the paralegal approach. Since 2013, Namati has been working with Nubian Rights Forum and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) in Kenya and with the Council of Minorities in Bangladesh to train and support paralegals in communities emerging from or at risk of statelessness.

The Nubian paralegals in Kenya and the Urdu-speaking paralegals in Bangladesh start by educating their communities about the importance of legal identity documents, the eligibility requirements and application processes.

Some people use that information to apply on their own. Others require additional assistance – help with forms, or a paralegal to accompany them to the registration office.  Sometimes the paralegal’s presence alone will make an official think twice before making extra-legal requests. And when an official delays or denies a client’s application for an identity document, the paralegal is there to use the law in negotiations and follow the case through to a resolution.

In the past 18 months, Nubian Rights Forum paralegals have opened over 1,200 cases and several hundred clients have already received their identity documents. In Bangladesh, more than 1,400 Urdu-speaking clients have received identity documents in just one year.

Yet the paralegals supported by Namati and its partners are not only concerned with assisting individual clients. The paralegals are tracking every case to establish an evidence base on how laws are implemented. By analyzing hundreds of cases, the data can be used for high-level advocacy.  Improvements to the law and practice can create change not only for Kenyan Nubians or Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis, but potentially ease access to legal identity documents to all citizens in these two countries.

And as this model of citizenship-focused paralegal services develops, practical resources and lessons will be shared with like-minded organizations, illustrating how community-based justice services can respond to or prevent statelessness around the globe.

This Guest Post was written by Laura Goodwin, Program Director at Namati ( She manages Namati’s Burma Program and Citizenship Program, which is active in Bangladesh and Kenya. She is speaking at the Global Forum on Statelessness on Monday 15 September.