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Census aims to improve the lives of refugees in the Dominican Republic

Making a Difference, 6 February 2012

© UNHCR/F.Martinez
As one member of a census team interviews a refugee, another takes down the details on a mobile phone.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, February 6 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and its partner organization Pastoral Haitiana have launched an unprecedented census aimed at improving the lives of hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers in the Dominican Republic.

The census, which began last week with funding from the United States administration, will provide more accurate data on the number of refugees in the Caribbean nation and will record basic information such as age, gender, nationality, place of current residence, and family details.

UNHCR, for the first time, is using mobile phones rather than pen and paper to record and digitalize this information, saving valuable time and resources. This equipment will also enable UNHCR-trained and supported census staff to take pictures and include satellite navigation data [GPS] as part of the registration process. The exercise will continue into March.

At the end of last year, there were an estimated 595 refugees and 1,785 asylum-seekers living in the country. While most are Haitian, there are also people from countries such as Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Syria. The majority live in urban areas around the capital, Santo Domingo.

The census will also provide an overview of the documentation status of this population. Most refugees in the Dominican Republic were recognized as such in the mid 1990s, but were never able to obtain legal residence in the country. Asylum-seekers have been waiting in some cases for more than 10 years for their claims to be decided, holding state-issued certificates which need to be renewed every three months and do not allow them to work.

"This census can be a useful tool for both UNHCR and the Dominican government," said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, head of the refugee agency's office in Santo Domingo. "By identifying where individuals are today and re-establishing contact with them, this exercise can contribute significantly in our joint efforts to reactivate the asylum system for individuals who have been waiting years for a decision," he added.

Refugee leaders and asylum-seekers welcomed the census, hoping it would bring about positive changes for them. "This will not solve all the problems my family and I have, but we feel that we count and that we are now being taken into consideration", said Joseph, a community leader.

The census was preceded by an information campaign and intensive consultations with community leaders to ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers are aware of the importance of being registered.

In August 2011, the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) requested UNHCR´s support to locate asylum-seekers in the country and prepare an initial assessment of their claims. The Dominican government later pledged at a landmark ministerial meeting in Geneva to strengthen CONARE's work and improve the procedure to deal with pending and future asylum cases.

UNHCR has pledged its full support to the Dominican authorities in this significant undertaking. As CONARE has not met since 2005, its reactivation is key in ensuring individuals can exercise their rights and duties under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

By Federico Martinez in Santo Domingo, Dominican

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At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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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.

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