Preventing Statelessness: Southeast Asian countries share lessons

News Stories, 29 October 2010

© UNHCR/C. Doan
Nguyen Thi Phuong, right, was stateless when this photo was taken at her mother's house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007, after her marriage to a Taiwanese man ended. Through a new Vietnamese nationality law she got her citizenship back.

BANGKOK, Thailand, Oct. 29 (UNHCR) Cambodia's dramatic success in documenting its citizens after the devastating Khmer Rouge years and Viet Nam's new nationality law that has rescued thousands of "economic brides" from stateless limbo have been shared with experts from nine Southeast Asian countries as model ways countries can prevent and reduce statelessness.

Yim Sam Ol, from Cambodia's Ministry of Interior, told some 60 experts at a Bangkok roundtable of his country's struggle to rebuild after all citizen registration documents were destroyed between 1975 and 1979. Using mobile teams to reach into the most remote areas, Cambodia managed to raise the percentage of birth certificates issued from five percent to more than 90 percent in just over two years.

"Birth registration is an important measure that can prevent statelessness," said Mark Manly, head of UNHCR's statelessness unit and one of the organizers of the roundtable, co-hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and UNHCR.

The two-day meeting, which ended Friday, was financed by the European Commission and comes as UNHCR begins a year-long campaign to help the world's estimated 12 million stateless people and encourage more countries to sign up to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

"The Cambodian registration campaign underlined the link between Cambodia and its citizens, which is an important step to prevent statelessness if Cambodians ever find themselves abroad without documents," Manly said.

At the same time, he added, "lack of documentation does not make you stateless." Manly explained that refugees, migrant workers and other displaced people often can't prove their status, but actually do have citizenship somewhere.

True statelessness comes about when a person has no claim to nationality in any country, sometimes because of dissolution of states (such as the former Soviet Union), or often because of a conflict of laws concerning citizenship and marriage.

Thousands of Vietnamese women who married Taiwanese men were left stateless because they were forced to renounce their citizenship in order to apply for citizenship in Taiwan. But if their marriages broke up before they got their new nationality, they and often their children came back to Viet Nam stateless, even in the country of their birth.

In 2009, Viet Nam passed a new nationality law that allows for dual citizenship and prevents women from falling into that limbo. Viet Nam has also systematically set about restoring citizenship to its stateless divorced women, most of who married for economic reasons.

Trinh Thi Hong Anh, from Viet Nam's Social Affairs Ministry, told the gathering that her ministry also intends launch a media campaign warning women about the potential hazards of marrying abroad. Vocational training and counseling will also be offered to women and children who come back home after failed marriages.

Rafendi Djamin, Indonesia's representative to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said ASEAN is quite open to learning from the whole world, "but we can also learn well from neighboring countries."

"We see a lot of similarities in terms of values and norms, so some of the lessons are more applicable because of similar values in Southeast Asian countries," he said.

Taking "best practices" from the meeting, Djamin said, the next step is to see what can be done to identify, prevent and reduce statelessness by working at a regional level.

By Kitty McKinsey in Bangkok

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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.

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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.

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Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

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