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UNHCR welcomes South America/Mercosur declaration

Briefing Notes, 17 November 2000

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 November 2000, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR welcomes a recent declaration by members and associates of South America's trading bloc MERCOSUR (Mercado del Cono Sur) in which they commit themselves to the strengthening of refugee protection in the entire region. The signatories adopted a broad definition of refugees, which also comprises victims of human rights violations and generalised violence, as opposed to a more narrow definition which recognises refugees on an individal basis. The declaration, which also refers to the need to harmonize Latin America's asylum laws and procedures, is an important milestone toward establishing a generous and strong refugee protection regime in the southern cone of the South American continent. It is particularly important, as it comes at a time when the internal conflict in Colombia is driving more and more people from their homes and also increasingly into neighbouring Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela. The MERCOSUR declaration, issued in Rio de Janeiro on November 10th and signed by MERCOSUR full members Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, as well as its associate members Chile and Bolivia, does not directly cover countries affected by the crisis in Colombia. Nonetheless UNHCR hopes its spirit will eventually also influence the currently restrictive asylum policies of Venezuela toward Colombian refugees.

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Osvaldo Laport

Osvaldo Laport

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats