Q&A: Brazil's Justice Minister committed to helping the displaced and stateless

News Stories, 9 November 2010

© Isaac Amorim
Brazil's Justice Minister Luiz Paulo Barreto.

BRASILIA, Brazil, November 9 (UNHCR) In recent years, Brazil has become one of UNHCR's most important partners in South America. That relationship will be further strengthened this week when Brazil's Justice Ministry hosts the "International Meeting on Refugee Protection, Statelessness and Mixed Migratory Movements in the Americas." The gathering on Thursday in Brasilia will discuss progress in the 2004 Mexico Plan of Action as well as statelessness and the increasingly important regional issues of resettlement and mixed migration flows. It will also kick off the UN refugee agency's 60th anniversary commemorations in the Americas and adopt the "Brasilia Declaration on the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons in the American Continent." To mark the occasion, Justice Minister Luiz Paulo Barreto discussed his country's asylum policies and the goals of the meeting with UNHCR Assistant Public Information Officer Luiz Fernando Godinho. Excerpts from the interview:

Officials from 20 countries will join the meeting. Why is it important?

It is a first step for an integrated protection response in the Americas covering refugees, other forcibly displaced populations and statelessness. Our region has experienced, and is still experiencing, several refugee situations and needs to have an efficient mechanism that provides support for affected populations. Responsibility must be shared and solutions must be sought and implemented at a regional level. The Americas must be a safe place that provides effective international protection for these people.

What results do you expect?

I hope this meeting will make participants aware of the importance of promoting national refugee laws. Adherence to the 1951 UN Convention [relating to the Status of Refugees] entails an international legal obligation, but it is quite difficult to make government officials and the judiciary understand the importance of an international convention. It is much easier to go through an internal law that regulates the convention. Brazil did this in 1997 and the developments since have been significant at the federal and state levels and within the judiciary. Brazil´s refugee law created a framework that is applied routinely, with duties and rights for the refugees.

Delegates will be reviewing the Mexico Plan of Action, which was adopted to safeguard refugees in Latin America. How important is it for the Americas?

The Mexico Plan of Action remains important for refugee protection because it requires that countries share the responsibility for supporting those affected.

Brazil was one of the 20 signatories. What changes and challenges has it brought?

Brazil participated in the drafting and passage of the Mexico Plan of Action and has been resettling refugees from this region and from outside the region [under its principles]. We have helped Colombian, Palestinian and Afghan refugees . . . We have a fast track system that approves resettlement cases in 48 hours.

What are your thoughts on mixed migration flows in the Americas?

It is important to receive these people and to distinguish between refugees and migrants. Countries must adhere to the principle of non-refoulement [no forced return] and use humanitarian and human rights laws to address the situation. In recent years, in several parts of the world, migration has been wrongly linked to criminal law. Even irregular migration should be addressed in a way that allows migrants to return to their country of origin in safety . . . Each country has the right to control migratory movements within its borders, but should not ignore their international legal obligation to protect and respect the principle of non-refoulement.

More than half of the world's refugees live in urban areas. Is this so for Brazil?

Most of the refugees arriving in Brazil have an urban background and they want to rebuild their lives in urban settings. They face obstacles in big cities, related to local integration, employment and culture. The main problem is becoming self-sufficient. Refugees should not become dependent on the government or on a country´s social welfare network. They should receive a first emergency assistance to help rebuild their life with dignity and respect. This rebuilding process should include self-sufficiency. In Brazil, we encourage skills training, with the support of our partners in civil society. It is also important that different cultures coexist in peace, as happens in Brazil.

Brazil is a signatory of the 1961 Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness. What are your policies on statelessness?

Brazil has internal mechanisms to prevent statelessness . . . Anyone who is born in Brazil is considered Brazilian, while children of Brazilians born in other parts of the world are also Brazilians. Our constitution also prohibits the loss of nationality through renunciation where this would leave someone stateless. For stateless people arriving in Brazil, our law provides for them to receive a special passport, to register themselves and to acquire the same rights as our citizens.

Tell us a bit about the National Committee for Refugees, or CONARE

It is essential that countries dealing with refugees should have a specialized body to deal with refugee eligibility and refugee policies and that this body should be as independent as possible . . . Brazil established the National Committee for Refugees 12 years ago with the participation of civil society and UNHCR. The UN agency has a voice in CONARE but no right to vote. It provides important technical and legal expertise and advice. This Brazilian tripartite model [government, civil society and UNHCR] is very important to guarantee CONARE´s independence. Moreover, CONARE's decisions can be appealed by asylum-seekers.

Brazil has generous policies towards refugees, but sometimes they face problems getting access to things such as employment, education and social programmes

We need to move forward on this and we consider that the best way is to raise awareness. Some refugees complain that when they present their documentation, employees see them as fugitives, subversive or criminals. On the contrary, these people are victims of persecution. The sensitization of society is the best way to guarantee their rights.

UNHCR, by correctly promoting the refugee issue, has been helping to change this culture of discrimination that can block people from accessing rights guaranteed by law. I am convinced that such difficulties are more due to ignorance than to shortcomings in the judiciary or administration.

On the eve of our 60th birthday, how do you rate UNHCR's work in Brazil?

It is terrific. At times of crisis, such as during the arrival of Angolan refugees in 1991 and 1992, UNHCR helped Brazil with the reception of these people. More importantly, UNHCR has also helped Brazil to improve its refugee policies. For instance, in 1985 and 1986 UNHCR convinced Brazil to ignore geographical barriers and accept Ba'hai Iranian refugees. Furthermore, UNHCR sensitized Brazil´s Ministry of Justice and civil society about the importance of having national refugee legislation, which was eventually passed in 1997. UNHCR has done a fantastic job in Brazil. It must continue to be supported and funded by the international community.




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

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Stateless People

A tough task determining the true number of stateless people

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

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

Stateless in Beirut

Since Lebanon was established as a country in the 1920s there has been a long-standing stateless population in the country.

There are three main causes for this: the exclusion of certain persons from the latest national census of 1932; legal gaps which deny nationality to some group of individuals; and administrative hurdles that prevent parents from providing proof of the right to citizenship of their newborn children.

Furthermore, a major reason why this situation continues is that under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, only men can; meaning a child with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother will inherit their father's statelessness.

Although exact numbers are not known, it is generally accepted that many thousands of people lack a recognized nationality in Lebanon and the problem is growing due to the conflict in Syria. Over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict and with over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country this number will increase.

Registering a birth in Lebanon is very complicated and for Syrian parents can include up to five separate administrative steps, including direct contact with the Syrian government. As the first step in establishing a legal identity, failure to properly register a child's birth puts him or her at risk of statelessness and could prevent them travelling with their parents back to Syria one day.

The consequences of being stateless are devastating. Stateless people cannot obtain official identity documents, marriages are not registered and can pass their statelessness on to their children Stateless people are denied access to public healthcare facilities at the same conditions as Lebanese nationals and are unable to own or to inherit property. Without documents they are unable to legally take jobs in public administrations and benefit from social security.

Children can be prevented from enrolling in public schools and are excluded from state exams. Even when they can afford a private education, they are often unable to obtain official certification.

Stateless people are not entitled to passports so cannot travel abroad. Even movement within Lebanon is curtailed, as without documents they risk being detained for being in the country unlawfully. They also do not enjoy basic political rights as voting or running for public office.

This is the story of Walid Sheikhmouss Hussein and his family from Beirut.

Stateless in Beirut

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