State of the World’s Stateless

Melanie Khanna

As the rich and varied contributions in this volume amply demonstrate, there have been momentous developments with respect to statelessness since the 2014 edition of this publication. Most notably, in November 2014 the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness was launched by UNHCR and partners with the ambition of ending statelessness in ten years. In the two years since then, the Campaign has helped to raise global awareness of statelessness and galvanise the political will to address it. Regional initiatives such as the Abidjan Declaration on the Eradication of Statelessness and the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action provided important early momentum in this regard; partly as a result of these helpful regional initiatives, a number of States have developed or begun to develop National Action Plans that envision the reforms necessary to prevent and resolve statelessness. In addition, some States have made positive legislative and policy changes since 2014 even without National Action Plans, as discussed below. With respect to solutions to existing situations, governments worldwide have granted or confirmed nationality for tens of thousands of stateless persons in each of the last two years. In most countries, reductions are happening and progress is steady, albeit not as fast as one would hope. Over the last two years adherence to the statelessness conventions has grown notably stronger: as of the end of September 2016, ten governments have acceded to one or both of the UN Statelessness Conventions since the Campaign was launched, bringing the total number of Parties to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to 89 and 68, respectively.

The developments highlighted above would not have been possible without the championship of many actors. UNHCR’s strategy for achieving the Campaign’s goals relies on enhanced diplomacy, stronger civil society coordination, and more robust engagement by other international organisations, and there have been important strides in all of these areas. The ‘Friends of the Campaign’ group, launched in October 2015, now meets quarterly in Geneva to exchange information about upcoming opportunities to advocate for the realisation of the right to nationality. The States in this group and others have been active bilaterally, regionally, and globally. At the global level, a resolution on the Right to Nationality was adopted by the Human Rights Council in June with over one hundred co-sponsors. The follow up work called for in the resolution will provide an important platform for cooperation among UNHCR, OHCHR, States, and civil society to disseminate good practices, particularly with respect to the elimination of gender discrimination from nationality laws. At the regional level, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a draft Protocol on the Right to Nationality that will go to AU Member States for review in 2017. A regional conference on statelessness in Central Asia was hosted by Turkmenistan in September 2016, and in October 2016 the League of Arab States, together with UNHCR, held an expert meeting on the theme of legal identity and belonging with a view to adoption of a Declaration at a subsequent stage.  In Asia, work is ongoing under the Bali process to produce a toolkit to support the commitment made by all states in the region to universal civil registration. In Europe, following the adoption in 2015 of the first ever EU Council Conclusions on Statelessness, UNHCR is working closely with EU institutions to encourage engagement with governments, civil society and others to end statelessness within the Union and beyond. And finally, in the Americas, the Organisation of American States General Assembly passed a resolution in 2016 welcoming the #IBelong Campaign and urging action to prevent and resolve statelessness.

Civil society has also ramped up its advocacy efforts. In June 2016 several dozen NGOs, including international human rights organisations attended a global statelessness retreat organized by UNHCR.  That retreat resulted in agreement on a number of shared strategic objectives for the year ahead, including cooperation to make more effective use of the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, to produce practical guidance on paralegal assistance projects to address statelessness, and to launch a Coalition on Every Child’s Right to Nationality. New regional civil society networks have sprung up in the last twenty-four months, complementing those already in place in Europe and the Americas. A number of NGOs have led initiatives that have been highly complementary to UNHCR’s effort to call attention to childhood statelessness in particular.  For example, the European Network on Statelessness launched an innovative #Statelesskids Campaign in 2015; in 2016 the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) produced a comprehensive toolkit to support various stakeholders’ ability to engage with the Committee of the Rights of the Child on the right to nationality (“Addressing the Right to a Nationality through the Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Toolkit on Civil Society”); and the Lawyers or Human Rights and ISI collaborated on a solutions-oriented publication on childhood statelessness in South Africa.

Other international organisations are also becoming more active in the fight against statelessness. UNHCR recently launched an effort to reinvigorate cooperation and shared ownership of this issue in relation to the rule of law, human rights, and development mandates of other agencies.  A one-day inter-agency dialogue on statelessness held in New York in June of 2016 attracted strong participation from UN organisations and the World Bank. It resulted in agreement on a collective effort to strengthen the capacity of UN Country Teams to address statelessness. In addition, UNICEF has committed to partner with UNHCR on the new Coalition to ensure Every Child’s Right to Nationality, and UNHCR and the World Bank are working to find synergies between the Campaign and the Bank’s new ‘ID4D Initiative’, which aims to ensure that every person on the planet has ID by 2030, consistent with Sustainable Development Goal 16.9. The Sustainable Development Goals generally provide important opportunities for partnerships with development actors to address the root causes of statelessness and advocate for inclusion of stateless persons in development planning. At the same time, the global push to ensure full ID coverage runs the risk of leaving stateless populations more vulnerable if they’re left behind. It will therefore be important for all stakeholders to strengthen advocacy efforts with governments and development actors in favour of the principle of universality with respect to basic ID, including birth registration.

At the end of 2015 UNHCR and the Inter-Parliamentary Union co-organized, with the Parliament of South Africa, a Conference on Ensuring Everyone’s Right to Nationality that attracted some hundred Parliamentarians worldwide and that continued the strong partnership that UNHCR already enjoys with the IPU on this issue. Parliamentarians are of course key actors in the fight to end statelessness, as they are instrumental in the achievement of meaningful law reform.

The first anniversary of the #IBelong Campaign attracted significant press attention to the issue, particularly with respect to the risk of statelessness among the forcibly displaced. This remains a serious issue, especially for those displaced persons who come from countries where gender discrimination in the nationality law makes it difficult or even impossible for mothers to transmit nationality to their children. Syria and Iraq, for example, are two countries of origin with gender discrimination in their nationality laws. Birth registration can mitigate the risk of statelessness among refugee children but it cannot eliminate the risk entirely.  UNHCR called attention to the plight of stateless children in its first Campaign anniversary publication ‘I Am Here, I Belong: The Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness’ and offered four concrete recommendations to States to prevent and reduce childhood statelessness. The first hand testimonies in that report have helped UNHCR and others to convey the human impact of statelessness to a wider public audience.

At the country level, there have been many notable achievements in relation to various Actions in UNHCR’s Global Action Plan, including Action 1 (Resolve Existing Major Situations of Statelessness); Action 2 (Ensure That No Child Is Born Stateless); Action 6 (Grant Protection Status to Stateless Migrants and Facilitate Their Naturalisation); Actions 7 and 8 (relating to birth registration and nationality documentation); Action 9 (Accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions) and Action 10 (Improve Quantitative and Qualitative Data on Stateless Persons). 

With respect to Action 1, some important developments include the following: UNHCR’s partnership with the Ministry of Justice in Cote d’Ivoire supported approximately 5,000 stateless people to acquire Ivorian nationality as of June 2016. In Central Asia, UNHCR’s work with government and NGO partners has promoted the identification and resolution of the cases of tens of thousands of statelessness people since 2014. In Thailand, close cooperation with the Royal Thai Government and NGO partners working with stateless communities has resulted in the granting of nationality to more than 23,000 stateless individuals over the past three and a half years, bringing the total registered population down to 438,821 as of September 2016.

With respect to Action 2, a number of States have amended their citizenship laws in positive ways since 2014. Estonia’s amendments to its Citizenship Act make it automatic for children born to parents with ‘undetermined citizenship’ to acquire citizenship at birth by naturalisation. They also ease naturalisation requirements for persons over 65 years of age. Latvia’s amendments to its law make it easier for children of non-citizen parents to acquire Latvian nationality.  And Armenia’s reforms ensure that all children born on Armenian territory who would otherwise be stateless acquire Armenian nationality.

With respect to Action 6, in 2016, the Government of Bolivia adopted a resolution to facilitate the naturalisation of stateless persons and refugees. In the same year, Costa Rica adopted a statelessness determination procedure. Recent law reforms in Greece pave the way for a Presidential Decree establishing a statelessness determination procedure. In 2015, the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kosovo adopted an instruction establishing a statelessness determination procedure and granting protection status to stateless individuals and a decision by the Hungarian Constitutional Court on 23 February 2015 removed the requirement that only lawfully staying persons could initiate a statelessness determination procedure in Hungary. Additional examples can be found in UNHCR’s recently published ‘Good Practices Paper on Establishing Statelessness Determination Procedures to Protect Stateless Persons’.

Improvements that support Action 7 on birth registration are taking place globally, and it can be expected that these will be further reinforced by SDG 16.9 and the creation of a new Global Working Group on CRVS, as well as by regional initiatives such as the 2014 Ministerial Declaration on CRVS in Asia and the Pacific. One of the most important achievements has been the significant increase in birth registration rates among refugees in the Middle East and North Africa region in the last two years, thanks to collective efforts to mitigate the risk of statelessness among the forcibly displaced. At the same time, efforts to ensure that all those entitled to nationality documentation are issued with it (Action 8) are seeing results in Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. It can be hoped that additional progress in this area will be made soon in Nepal and the Dominican Republic, among other places.

The achievements with respect to Action 9 (accession to the statelessness conventions) have already been detailed above. With respect to Action 10, important country-level mapping studies have been carried out either locally or country-wide in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Kenya, and Serbia, among other places.  Additional surveys are underway or in the works in a number of countries, including in Benin, the Gambia, Mali, Ghana, and Zimbabwe.

One disappointment in terms of progress in the last two years relates to Action 3, ‘The Removal of Gender Discrimination from Nationality Laws’. While there have been substantial advocacy efforts by UNHCR, the Global Campaign on Equal Nationality Rights, and others—and although a number of States have pledged to eliminate gender discrimination from nationality laws as part of regional initiatives or during the course of their Universal Periodic Reviews—as of September 2016 the number of States with gender discrimination in their nationality laws remains the same as it was in 2014.  Given the pledges made to eliminate this discrimination, however, and given law reform processes in progress in Liberia, Madagascar, and Somalia, among other places, it can be hoped that there will be some meaningful progress over the next two years.

The year 2017 will be an important one, as it is a ‘Milestone Year’ for UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign, when progress will be measured against the specific targets set out in the Global Action Plan. The numerical targets are ambitious ones and in many areas progress is likely to fall short of the Campaign’s goals. UNHCR and other stakeholders will thus need to redouble their efforts as the Campaign approaches its mid-way point and capitalise on higher levels of greater global awareness and political will. The inclusion of statelessness in the 2016 New York Declaration may present opportunities in this regard. The challenges will be significant, however, as the global displacement crisis has not only heightened the risk of new statelessness situations but has also made national debates about belonging and nationality more contentious in some parts of the world. Deprivation of nationality linked to counterterrorism efforts has also become a topic of debate in many countries. In the years ahead it will be important for the international community to counter xenophobia and fear-mongering with concrete evidence about the benefits of social inclusion and the risks of marginalisation. Moreover, coordinated diplomacy to promote the right to nationality should be matched with development assistance to improve the rule of law and Civil Registration and Vital Statistics systems worldwide. In sum, there are rather remarkable opportunities today to advance the cause of ending statelessness; at the same time, there are new risks that must be carefully navigated.

Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights – by Catherine Harrington

Since its launch in 2014, the Global Campaign has exposed the costs of gender-discriminatory nationality and is mobilising action to realise needed reforms amongst international and national policy makers and civil society. At the international level, the Global Campaign increased attention to this issue, through: informing parliamentarians from 50+ countries of the impact of gender discriminatory nationality laws at a conference on statelessness organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UNHCR; engagement in target countries’ UPR, CEDAW, and CRC reviews; and a June 2016 UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Side Event, organized by the Global Campaign and cosponsored by fifteen Member States, three UN agencies, and ISI, which raised awareness of the new HRC resolution 32/7, "The Right to a Nationality: Women's Equal Nationality Rights in Law and Practice”. Co-sponsored by 107 Member States, the new resolution calls for the reform of all gender-discriminatory provisions in nationality laws. The need for gender equal nationality rights was also highlighted around both the 2015 and 2016 UN Open Debates on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), including in the 2016 NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security's Open Letter, signed by the Global Campaign and 253 NGOs from 55 countries.

At the national level, activities undertaken by the Global Campaign increased momentum for reform in several countries. The Global Campaign’s February 2016 Gulf regional conference on women’s nationality rights, co-organized by Bahrain Women Union, helped to revitalise the national campaign for reform, according to a leading Bahraini activist – a movement stifled since the 2011 uprisings. Following an October 2015 Madagascar workshop on nationality rights, co-organized with Focus Development, UNHCR, and Equal Rights Trust, the President of the National Assembly and thirty parliamentarians committed to reforms. A new citizenship law enshrining women’s right to confer nationality on children is now under consideration and expected to be passed by parliament.  Global Campaign members led by Equality Now filed an amicus brief, with other human rights organisations, to the US Supreme Court regarding the Lynch v. Morales Santana case challenging discrimination against single fathers in US nationality law. Oral arguments took place in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 2016. During the February 2015, ECOWAS Members committed to advancing gender equal nationality rights, in the Abidjan Declaration of ECOWAS Ministers, with explicit commitments made by Liberia and Sierra Leone to enact reforms.  In 2016, Somalia’s Ministry of Justice engaged in public consultations regarding proposed changes to the nationality law, which would advance women’s nationality rights.

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