Statelessness: Breaking the cycle in Kyrgyzstan

News Stories, 26 August 2011

© UNHCR/A.Zhorobaev
An NGO staff works alongside a Kyrgyz state official in a UNHCR-supported initiative to process stateless people's applications for passports, naturalization, registration and documentation.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan, August 26 (UNHCR) Ravshan and his wife Feruza work in the fields from dawn to dusk, slaving 14 hours every day under the hot sun with few breaks to eat or rest. Their children and grandchildren toil beside them, planting crops like maize, potatoes and tomatoes. They can only dream of having their own plot of the land and formal jobs with shorter working hours and better pay.

But three generations of this family have no rights because on paper, they do not exist. The couple, three of their children and six of their grandchildren are stateless.

This is despite the fact that Ravshan, aged 59, and Feruza, 57, were born and have been living their whole life in Kashgar-Kyshtak village, some 15 kilometres from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. They still hold old red Soviet passports, documents of the country that broke up two decades ago. They became stateless because they did not apply for new citizenship papers after Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991.

According to surveys conducted by the UN refugee agency, over 17,000 people in Kyrgyzstan are currently stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Most of them have lived here for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, they are often unable to register a marriage or the birth of a child, to travel within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, to receive pensions or social allowances, or to own property.

The majority of stateless people in the Kyrgyz Republic are women or minors. Their lack of citizenship documents increases their vulnerability, including for exploitation and abuse in their families and communities.

For Ravshan and Feruza, being stateless means that they cannot receive their old age pension even though they have both worked in a local collective farm for more than 20 years. Feruza says her biggest fear is to fall sick. Access to basic health care is limited for non-citizens and the family cannot afford to pay the high costs of hospital care.

Their children face even greater problems due to their stateless status. Their son Shovkat, 34, also had a Soviet passport but lost it years ago. "I earn 100 som (about US$2,5) per day," he said. "I have to pay a fine for the lost passport and other fees to restore documents, in total about 3,000 som (about US$ 70). To get a new Kyrgyz passport I need to go to the town several times, pay for transport, and miss several days of work. I don't have so much money and I don't know what to do with papers."

His wife has a Kyrgyz passport but because Shovkat is stateless, their two daughters, aged one and four, have no birth certificates and will be stateless in the future as well. The family receives no social allowances for children as they are not officially registered. The girls are too young to understand what it means to be stateless but they are getting used to the extreme poverty and having no opportunities for education or a better future.

Shovkat works illegally in the market in the neighbouring village of Kara Suu. He cannot work in the fields like his family as he lost part of his arm when he was working as a mechanic in a private garage. The lack of personal documents and valid passport makes it impossible for him to get a monthly disability allowance.

His brother, 37, also holds a Soviet passport. He says that with no valid ID he cannot go beyond his village. "I would like to go to work in Russia to support my family and parents, like many Kyrgyz nationals do," he said. "But without valid documents I cannot even visit my relatives in Osh or Bishkek."

Mubarak Sadykova is a local activist who helps a UNHCR non-governmental partner to find and help stateless people. "In this small community alone, I identified about 40 stateless people who face difficulties similar to Ravshan and his family's," she said.

Globally, UNHCR has been given a mandate to work with governments to prevent statelessness from occurring, to resolve those cases that do occur and to protect the rights of stateless persons. In Kyrgyzstan, the agency has been funding civil society organisations, providing advice on legislation and practices, and giving technical support to authorities tasked with solving citizenship problems.

Part of this work involves funding joint governmental-NGO mobile clinics to reach out to stateless individuals and help them become Kyrgyz nationals. UNHCR pays for vehicles, fuel and equipment that enable lawyers from the local NGO to help Ravshan and hundreds of other families submit papers in order to exchange old Soviet passports for new Kyrgyz ones.

Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. Of the 20,000 refugees who arrived in Kyrgyzstan after fleeing the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s, around 10,000 were granted Kyrgyz citizenship while the rest repatriated. Thousands of people have exchanged their old Soviet passports for new Kyrgyz ones and become Kyrgyz nationals. But more stateless people emerge as UNHCR conducts outreach activities jointly with the authorities and NGOs.

In 2009 UNHCR and the government of Kyrgyzstan jointly adopted a National Plan for the Reduction and Prevention of Statelessness. In June this year, the agency and its partners from civil society and the government met to discuss the progress made and to revise the national plan. They agreed to conduct a comprehensive survey on the current scale and situation of stateless people and to take steps to ensure that all new-born children on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic are provided with birth certificates. They also agreed to initiate accession of the Kyrgyz Republic to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention this year, UNHCR has launched a campaign (add hyperlink) encouraging states to sign up as parties to the two Conventions on statelessness. In December, the agency will hold a ministerial-level meeting in Geneva to promote international efforts towards resolving the problem of statelessness.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons.

By Natalia Prokopchuk in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

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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

UNHCR country pages

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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

Stateless People

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

A Place to Call Home: The Situation of Stateless Persons in the Kyrgyz Republic

Findings of surveys commissioned by UNHCR, Bishkek 2009.

State Action on Statelessness

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

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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

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