UNHCR chief hails landmark conference for making "quantum leap" on statelessness

News Stories, 8 December 2011

© UNHCR/J-M Ferré
High Commissioner António Guterres gives a press conference after the close of the ministerial conference in Geneva today.

GENEVA, December 8 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Thursday wrapped up the largest ministerial meeting of its kind after hailing participating states for making a "quantum leap" forward at the Geneva gathering on the issue of statelessness.

"Where I believe there was a real breakthrough, a quantum leap, was in relation to the protection of stateless people," he said in a closing address to representatives from almost 150 states, including more than 70 at ministerial level.

"I believe we are making a giant step forward," Guterres said, after noting that eight countries had ratified and deposited their instruments of accession to one or other of the two UN statelessness conventions this year and that a further 20 countries had made commitments at the ministerial meeting in relation to ratification of the conventions. "And not only that, 25 other states made pledges in order to improve the protection of stateless people. I think that now we have a duty to profit from this momentum, "he added.

"Statelessness is one of the most forgotten areas of the global human rights agenda. To be honest, statelessness has been kind of a stepchild of UNHCR's mandate. The number of countries that have ratified the statelessness conventions is out of proportion to the number of countries that have ratified the 1951 [Refugee] Convention and its [1967] Protocol," he said.

By some estimates statelessness affects up to 12 million people, a number not far short of the total for the world's 15.4 million refugees. But the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness have long been under-supported. As of the start of 2011, the 1954 Convention had only 65 states parties, and the 1961 Convention had just 37. There are 193 member states in the United Nations.

High Commissioner Guterres also hailed the "absolutely remarkable" number of pledges made at the two-day gathering by more than 60 states on a wide range of issues to help forcibly displaced and stateless people. He also commended states for adopting a Ministerial Communiqué reaffirming the fundamentals of the international protection regime and of the refugee and statelessness conventions. "The communiqué also points to the future and encourages us to work further collaboratively on protection gaps and the challenges of the 21st Century," said UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk.

Guterres said UNHCR would report on progress made in relation to what was pledged during the conference and stressed that pledges could be sent to the refugee agency until the end of January. The pledges relate to a wide range of issues, including statelessness, sexual and gender-based violence, strengthening of national asylum institutions, resettlement, protection of women and children, improving national refugee legislation, voluntary repatriation, combatting racism, climate change, alternatives to detention, and integration.

Earlier in the day, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari urged delegations to do more to resolve the plight of the forcibly displaced and stateless. "Almost all refugee situations are caused by humans. They can and must be solved by humans, by us, by our leaders, by the international community," said the Nobel peace laureate, who in 1939 was forced to flee his own hometown of Viiipuri (now Vyborg in the Russian Federation) at the age of two.

"Let us recommit ourselves to seeking lasting solutions to conflicts. Let us see refugees as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let us involve refugees in peace processes," he said in a keynote address at the conference, which also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

"The conventions are crucial instruments to safeguard the fundamental rights of refugees and provide standards for their treatment," said Ahtisaari. These legal treaties enable UNHCR to provide protection and assistance to millions of people worldwide.

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, meanwhile, announced that her country would from next year increase its support for the work of UNHCR and continue to co-sponsor the annual Nansen Refugee Award, which this year was won by the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity for its life-saving work helping refugees and migrants on the Yemeni coast.

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 operate.




The High Commissioner

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

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.

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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