Helping Crimean Tatars feel at home again

News Stories, 8 June 2005

© UNHCR/D.Zhuravliov
The Izetov family has returned from Uzbekistan to its ancestral homeland in Crimea, southern Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine, June 8 (UNHCR) The Izetov family could rival any legislator, politician or lawyer in their knowledge of Ukraine's Citizenship Law and procedures, despite spending decades in forced exile and only returning to their ancestral homeland in recent years.

Their knowledge is first hand. "My mother-in-law was the first to return to Crimea in 1993," says Ulvie Izetov, referring to the peninsula in southern Ukraine where her Crimean Tatar ancestors originated. "She became a citizen in 2000. In 2002, my mother and my son came back. They applied for citizenship the same year, and received Ukrainian passports in 2003."

Ulvie herself became a naturalised Ukrainian this year, along with her husband and elder son. "We have to become citizens. We have not come for a spell, but to stay forever in our native land. Now I am confident of the future of my sons," she says, sure that her grandson, too, will receive a Ukrainian passport as soon as he grows up.

This certainty and sense of belonging is a welcome change after more than 60 years of living in limbo. The Izetovs were among more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars deported in May 1944 under Josef Stalin's regime, which accused them of siding with the Nazis. Some families were given as little as five or 10 minutes to pack their belongings and food before being crammed into cattle trains bound for republics that were then part of the Soviet Union. Many deportees died during the long and hard journey; most of the survivors ended up in Uzbekistan.

Although the deportation scheme which involved eight entire ethnic "nations" in all ended with Stalin's death in 1953, the Crimean Tatars were prevented from going back to their homeland, which occupied a strategic position in the Black Sea and had become a popular vacation and retirement spot for Soviet officials. Those deportees who tried to return to the peninsula were deported anew.

It was only with the weakening of Soviet central control in the late 1980s that the Crimean Tatars started streaming home steadily. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, many of these formerly deported people (FDPs) fell through the cracks as former republics became independent countries. Some became stateless while others now held citizenship in Uzbekistan or other former Soviet republics to which they had no real ties.

By 1996, close to 250,000 FDPs primarily Tatars had returned to the Crimean peninsula from deportation. Some 150,000 of them could obtain citizenship automatically under Ukraine's Citizenship Law of 1991, but more than 100,000 who returned after the country declared independence faced greater problems in obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. Some 28,000 of them became de facto stateless by returning after Ukraine's Citizenship Law but before the citizenship law of their country of deportation took effect.

Another 80,000 had already become affiliated with citizenship of their countries of deportation and now faced problems renouncing this citizenship and acquiring that of their new home, Ukraine. To qualify for Ukrainian citizenship, they had to renounce their Uzbek or other citizenship, an often long, bureaucratic and costly process. It could be years before a returning Crimean Tatar could start exercising his or her rights as a citizen.

UNHCR started working in Crimea in 1996 after the government requested help to reintegrate the returning Tatars. "At a volume of US$5.3 million, the assistance that UNHCR has provided over the last 10 years to the integration of FDPs and their descendants in Crimea constitutes the most comprehensive programme related to the prevention and reduction of statelessness that we have implemented in any one country to date," said Guy Ouellet, UNHCR's Regional Representative in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

Initial assistance ranged from temporary shelter to infrastructure and development programmes for the returning FDPs in Crimea. UNHCR funded non-governmental organizations to develop a network of local lawyers to provide free legal aid to the returnees. The agency also supported the training of all authorities involved in the citizenship process, from local passport offices in Crimea to the Citizenship Directorate of the President. It extended legal advice to the parliament and government of Ukraine to adopt adequate national legislation and bilateral treaties to simplify the naturalisation process.

At the same time, UNHCR has launched several citizenship campaigns to sensitise the returnees to the advantages of Ukrainian citizenship. Without it, "they cannot work for government agencies. They cannot find a job as they are not accepted at job placement centres because they are citizens of Uzbekistan. Even if they do find work, most employers do not want to register them officially," explains Elvira Zeitullaeva, who manages the Assistance foundation, a key UNHCR partner in Crimea.

By end-2001, after the adoption of the new and greatly improved Ukrainian Citizenship Law and a bilateral agreement on simplified procedures for changing citizenship between Uzbekistan and Ukraine, more than 90 percent of the returning Crimean Tatars had become naturalised Ukrainian citizens. Problems resurfaced, however, when the Uzbek side rejected the extension of this agreement beyond end-2001.

More recently, due to further developments in Ukrainian law, the rate of naturalisation has risen sharply since late last year, with over 3,500 Crimean Tatars receiving citizenship since October 2004.

Among the changes is the Kyiv government's decision to denounce bilateral agreements on the prevention of dual citizenship with Uzbekistan and Georgia, which now allows Crimean Tatars returning from those countries to benefit from simplified procedures under the 2001 Citizenship Law. Benefits include a year of provisional citizenship while they renounce their previous citizenship, as well as a complete waiver of renunciation procedures if the cost US$105 to renounce Uzbek citizenship, for example exceeds the minimum monthly wage in Ukraine.

Seit-Yakhya Seit-Yakubov has been back in Ukraine since 2002. He obtained his citizenship with his wife and daughter in 2004. "It helped a lot that they implemented the simplified procedure with the cancellation of the Uzbek citizenship. We feel relieved that we are finally citizens of Ukraine," he says.

"From now on, we can take part in elections," adds Alim, his teenage grandson, who became a citizen this year and will benefit from free education, among other rights.

"Sometimes I count all this money that we spent on these procedures and could instead have used to buy bricks and window frames for our unfinished house," sighs Ulvie Izetov, who is nonetheless happy with her new status. "Without citizenship, we weren't able to register land for a very long time."

Land issues in Crimea are still critical for the returning Tatars. Many of them came back to find their ancestral land occupied by others, and have been appealing for restitution and possible compensation for lost property and rights.

"It is most important that a citizen has the right to obtain a land plot and start its privatization," stresses Zeitullaeva of the Assistance foundation.

Sergey Babashin, who heads the citizenship, immigration and registration department under the central directorate of Ukraine's Interior Ministry in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, sums up the challenges ahead: "The main thing is to inform people more this is what matters. Now we have to live together, and the faster they integrate into society, the less inter-ethnic problems we will have."

© UNHCR/D.Zhuravliov
Seit-Yakhya Seit-Yakubov with his new Ukrainian passport.

According to the Assistance foundation, some 8,000 Crimean Tatars and their families who have returned from deportation remain foreign citizens, and between 1,000 and 2,000 more are coming back every year. Thanks to the simplified procedures, the naturalisation rate is outpacing the new arrivals, with passports being issued within weeks. This should free up the authorities and aid agencies to focus on longer-term integration to help the Crimean Tatars feel at home again.

Ukraine's very progressive citizenship legislation has allowed it to sign the 1997 European Convention on Nationality. Further amendments currently prepared in Parliament could soon lead to a ratification of this convention as well as accession to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. On June 7, UNHCR and the Council of Europe convened a conference in Kyiv to discuss and promote this process as well as Ukraine's future accession to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, with representatives of Ukraine's legislative and executive.

By Natalia Prokopchuk
UNHCR Ukraine




UNHCR country pages

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Displaced: Root CausesPlay video

Displaced: Root Causes

The High Commissioner's Dialogue, a two day conference will consider the root causes, war, natural hazards, persecution, statelessness, for the unprecedented number of displaced people around the world.
Ukraine: Helping Hands Play video

Ukraine: Helping Hands

Ukrainian individuals and organizations, like Everybody Can Help, have been helping people displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine with clothing, food and other aid items. The volunteers at Everybody Can Help have helped more than 25,000 people.
Ukraine: Destruction in DonetskPlay video

Ukraine: Destruction in Donetsk

Alexander Kovalenko is one of the last people still living on his street in Donetsk, where the conflict in eastern Ukraine has left a trail of destruction. His home was struck by six shells and the roof was blown off. Now Alexander lives amid the rubble, in a little room he has fixed up, waiting for peace to return.