Statelessness: UNHCR hails new support, urges more action on treaties

News Stories, 23 September 2011

© UN Office of Legal Affairs Treaty Section
UNHCR chief António Guterres congratulates Croatian President Ivo Josipović on the accession as Patricia O'Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, looks on.

GENEVA, September 23 (UNHCR) Three additional countries have formally adopted international legal standards to keep stateless people from falling into legal limbo a sign that the campaign against statelessness is gaining momentum but still needs considerable international support.

This week, Croatia, Nigeria and the Philippines deposited their instruments of accession/ratification at an annual treaty event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The treaties concerned are the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines who is considered stateless and establishes minimum standards of treatment, as well as the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness.

Up to 12 million people are believed to be stateless worldwide. They have no nationality, usually lack valid identity documents, and are often denied even the most basic rights, including access to health care, education, housing and jobs.

Today, the bulk of new stateless cases involve children born to stateless parents. This can be prevented if more countries accede to the 1961 Convention and offer citizenship to stateless children at birth.

On Thursday, High Commissioner António Guterres welcomed Croatia as the 40th state to become party to the 1961 Convention. Guterres congratulated Croatian President Ivo Josipović after he submitted documents to the UN and confirmed his government's commitment to prevent future cases of statelessness. Croatia has an estimated 1,700 citizens of the former Yugoslavia who are either stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. UNHCR is working to provide them with legal aid to resolve the issue.

Depositing Nigeria's instruments on Tuesday, President Goodluck Jonathan was quoted in Nigerian media as saying that accession was a demonstration of the "country's resolve to ensure that everyone has an effective right to nationality." Given Nigeria's diplomatic weight, UNHCR expects the country's accession to boost efforts to promote accession and address statelessness in Africa.

With this week's developments, the Philippines has become the first country in Southeast Asia to become party to the 1954 Convention. "We are pleased to welcome the Philippines as the first country in the region that has committed to protecting the rights of stateless people," said Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR's representative in the Philippines. "We now have a country in Southeast Asia which tells the world: 'We care for the stateless'."

The Philippines has a long tradition of giving sanctuary to stateless people and there are legal mechanisms to regularise their status. Later this year, UNHCR and the authorities will join forces in an exercise to determine how many stateless people there are, and where they live in the country. The refugee agency is also supporting the government to amend its nationality legislation to prepare for accession to the 1961 Convention.

The Philippines actually was one of the first 23 countries to sign the 1954 Convention before it closed for signature on 31 Dec 1955, and has now ratified it to put it into effect. Other signatory states that have yet to ratify the 1954 Convention include Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. Signatory states that have not acceded to the 1961 Convention are the Dominican Republic, France and Israel. UNHCR is working with a number of these States to ensure that their signature of these conventions decades ago is followed by ratification.

In total, the numbers of states that are party to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions now stand at 68 and 40 respectively. These figures are disappointingly low given that the UN has 193 member states. International support is growing but it still lacks the critical mass to make a substantial difference in the global campaign against statelessness.

UNHCR is calling on governments to seriously consider acceding to both treaties. The agency is also urging those states that are considering accession to start procedures at the national level.

More countries are expected to follow the example set by Croatia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Panama which acceded in June and become party to one or both of the statelessness conventions. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention, UNHCR will hold a treaty ceremony during the ministerial-level meeting in Geneva in early December. There are already indications from a number of states that they will accede or pledge to do so at this event.

With reporting by Yanya Viskovich in New York and Tom Temprosa in Manila

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UNHCR country pages

State Action on Statelessness

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

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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.

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 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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