Landmark UNHCR conference opens with appeal for the world's forcibly displaced, stateless

News Stories, 7 December 2011

© UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses the opening of the ministerial meeting in Geneva, on Wednesday 7 December 2011.

GENEVA, December 7 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday opened the largest conference of its kind in UNHCR's 60-year history with an appeal for urgent reinforcing of the international system that deals with the world's millions of stateless people and forcibly displaced.

In his opening address to the ministerial meeting in Geneva's Palais des Nations, Guterres warned that a succession of political crises and the global economic downturn were contributing to a significantly more challenging environment for protecting people who are forced to flee their homes. And he took a swipe at those playing on public uncertainty and anxiety to promote xenophobia.

Refugees are not a security threat, but rather the first victims of insecurity.

High Commissioner

"Populist politicians and irresponsible elements of the media exploit feelings of fear and insecurity to scapegoat foreigners, to try to force the adoption of restrictive policies, and to actively spread racist and xenophobic sentiments," he said, adding that governments and social and political movements needed to be more courageous in confronting intolerance. "Refugees are not a security threat, but rather the first victims of insecurity."

The UN refugee agency was created in December 1950, initially as a response to displacement in Europe in the wake of World War II. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention came about a few months later and has since become one of the most widely accepted international human rights instruments responsible for saving millions of refugee lives.

UNHCR's work has expanded, meanwhile, to include statelessness and helping some of the millions of internally displaced people. At the start of this year, the global population of refugees, asylum-seekers and people displaced internally by conflict, stood at 43.7 million people. The number of stateless people is harder to determine, but is estimated at 12 million or more.

Guterres spoke of four challenges to providing the kind of protection that the Refugee Convention aspired to: failures of states to live up to their Convention obligations; disproportionate burdens for developing countries, who host 80 per cent of the world's refugees; the millions of refugees left stranded in protracted displacement limbo; and the complicating effects of factors such as population growth, food and water insecurity. He also warned that climate change was increasingly exacerbating other drivers of forced displacement.

"A growing number of people are uprooted by natural disasters or lose their livelihoods to desertification, with climate change now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement," he said. "These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily. As forcibly displaced not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void. So while the nature of forced displacement is rapidly evolving, the responses available to the international community have not kept pace."

The High Commissioner called on states to look at ways to strengthen their own protection mechanisms for the displaced and stateless. He also announced a commitment by UNHCR to do more to fight sexual and gender-based violence with particular focus on women and girls of concern to UNHCR.

"What I am asking of you here today is not a new convention, it is not an extended mandate for UNHCR," he said. "What I am asking is for all of us to assume our shared duty… To open up the way for innovative responses that will help protect people in need, benefit the social cohesion of society and strengthen global peace and security."

United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a special address, reaffirmed her government's support for UNHCR while calling on governments to work closer together to help the stateless and the displaced. "We have to do a better job of breaking down barriers, both within our governments and between our governments and multilateral organizations," she said. "If we do what is necessary today, we can alleviate a lot of suffering."

© UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré
United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on the first day of UNHCR's ministerial conference, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

Clinton said the United States would be delivering 28 pledges to the meeting, including one aimed at spreading awareness about "one of the major causes of statelessness, which is discrimination against women." She said at least 30 countries prevent women from acquiring, retaining or transmitting citizenship to their children or their foreign spouses. And in some cases nationality laws strip women of their citizenship if they marry someone from another country."

She urged other nations to join the US initiative to "build awareness about these issues and support efforts to end or amend such discriminatory laws."

The Secretary of State also said more needed to be done to support host nations, such as Kenya, "that have shown great compassion and concern, often at the expense of their security and needs." Kenya's Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang told delegates Kenya now hosts more than 600,000 refugees from conflict-torn Somali. "Kenya is overwhelmed," he said, while noting the monetary costs and the security challenges. He insisted that host countries "are entitled to burden-sharing by the international community."

Clinton, meanwhile, cited a former Somali refugee resettled in the United States, Fatouma Elmi, as "evidence of the wisdom of investing in women." Elmi, who fled Somalia when war broke out in 1991, helps refugees build new lives in the US. She is part of the US delegation.

At a special treaty event on Wednesday evening, Serbia acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and Turkmenistan became party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons

High Commissioner Guterres hailed the action taken by the two countries. He also honoured Panama, Croatia, Nigeria and the Philippines, which became parties to one or both of the statelessness conventions earlier in the year. He thanked other states that pledged on Wednesday to consider acceding to either of the statelessness conventions in the near future.

The 1954 Convention defines who is considered stateless and establishes minimum standards of treatment for such people. The 1961 Convention provides principles and a legal framework to prevent statelessness. With the recent accessions, the 1954 Convention now has 69 states parties while the 1961 Convention has 41.

Representatives from almost 150 countries are attending, including about 70 other ministerial-level government officials. The conference is the culmination of political and diplomatic efforts over many years by UNHCR to rally renewed support and commitments for the fundamental legal treaties that enable the agency to provide protection and assistance to people worldwide.

In a year of commemorations, UNHCR has celebrated important milestones for two of those treaties the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The UN refugee agency reached its own 60th birthday last December.

Keynote speeches:

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Ministerial Meeting

UNHCR organized a highly successful ministerial meeting in Geneva on December 7-8, 2011 to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

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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.

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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 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

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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