Latin America nations pledge more for protection of the displaced and stateless

News Stories, 12 November 2010

© Wilson Dias/ABr
Participants at the international meeting in Brasilia on refugee protection, statelessness and mixed migratory movements.

BRASILIA, Brazil, November 12 (UNHCR) Eighteen Latin American nations have wrapped up an important meeting in Brazil with agreement to do more for the protection of forcibly displaced and stateless people in the region. The pledge came in the "Brasilia Declaration on the protection of refugees and stateless persons in the Americas," adopted Thursday in the Brazilian capital.

UN High Commissioner António Guterres, in a message released Friday in Geneva, welcomed the declaration, which came at the end of a meeting hosted by Brazil's Justice Ministry on refugee protection, statelessness and mixed migratory movements in the Americas.

"This is a landmark declaration that I hope will result not only in better protection for refugees and other displaced people across the Americas, but also accelerate global efforts to improve the situation of displaced people and end the scourge of statelessness," Guterres said.

"I encourage governments in other regions to take note of the pioneering leadership that has been shown today by Latin America in making this Declaration. This is a valuable international precedent," the High Commissioner added.

A highlight of the Brasilia Declaration includes the unrestricted respect countries have for the principle of non-refoulement (non-forced return), including non-rejection at borders and non-penalization of illegal entry. It also supports the continued incorporation of gender, age and diversity considerations into national laws on refugees and internally displaced people.

And thirdly, the Declaration encourages states to adopt mechanisms to address new situations of displacement not foreseen by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It reaffirms many of the commitments made by the 20 countries that adopted the 2004 Mexico Plan of Action, which aims to safeguard refugees in Latin America.

Senior UNHCR officials, including Director of International Protection Volker Türk, were among some 120 people attending the meeting, which also marked the launch of UNHCR's 60th anniversary commemorations in the Americas.

Türk, while noting the Americas' long tradition of providing asylum and protection to people in need as well as the region's history of good practices, stressed that many challenges remain. He singled out urbanization, gang-related violence, mixed migration, internally displaced people and statelessness.

As well as celebrating it's 60th birthday, UNHCR will over the next year also mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, one of two UN conventions which address statelessness. The refugee agency will be making a big push to persuade more countries to accede to the conventions and to reduce the number of stateless people, estimated to be some 12 million.

© UNHCR/M.Viery
Brazil's Justice Minister Luiz Paulo Barreto (left) and UNHCR's Volker Türk try the “Put yourself in a refugee´s shoes” feature.

Although statelessness is relatively rare in the region, Türk urged more countries in the Americas to accede to the two conventions, noting that a mere six countries were parties to the 1961 convention and only 13 had acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

"Our office stands ready to support governments wishing to become parties to these conventions," he said.

On the sidelines of Thursday's gathering, UNHCR's Türk and conference host, Brazilian Justice Minister Luiz Paulo Barreto, helped launch an awareness campaign "Put Yourselves in a Refugee's Shoes" to promote tolerance for refugees, discover their stories and counter discrimination.

The countries that adopted the Brasilia Declaration are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The United States and Canada participated as observers in the Brasilia international meeting.




UN Conventions on Statelessness

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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.

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.

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Statelessness in Viet Nam

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.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

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