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UNHCR praises Ecuador, Honduras and Portugal for acceding to Statelessness Conventions

Press Releases, 2 October 2012

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres today praised Ecuador, Honduras and Portugal for joining the growing ranks of countries that have taken concrete steps to address the issue of statelessness.

All three states became parties at a special event in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Ecuador became a party to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Honduras to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and Portugal became party to both conventions.

"The action by these three states demonstrates a growing awareness about statelessness and, more importantly, the political will to address it," Guterres said, while noting that statelessness affected up to 12 million people worldwide. Most have no secure residence in the countries where they reside, are denied the legal right to work and have limited access to education and health care.

"We are at a turning point. Fifteen states have become parties to the Conventions in the past 18 months and we know that many more are preparing to do so in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East," the High Commissioner said. "This is unprecedented."

Guterres was referring to a landmark ministerial conference in Geneva last year, where more than 60 governments pledged to take action to prevent and reduce statelessness and to protect the rights of stateless people.

Twelve countries committed to reform nationality laws, including those which discriminate against women by preventing them from conferring nationality upon their children. More than 30 governments committed to becoming parties to one or both of the two conventions.

The 1954 Convention establishes basic rights for stateless persons, while the 1961 Convention sets out safeguards to prevent statelessness from occurring and reduce the stateless population over time.

Guterres also called upon states to bring an end to statelessness, and the denial of human rights that this represents, within the next decade, stressing that statelessness "is an anachronism in the 21st century." He said UNHCR was ready to assist governments in finding solutions and emphasized that accession to the statelessness conventions is only one step.

UNHCR launched a campaign to end statelessness in 2011. Since then the UN refugee agency has recorded 22 accessions by 15 countries to either one or both of the 1954 and 1961 Conventions.

With the latest accessions, 76 countries are state parties to the 1954 Convention (up from 65 at beginning of 2011).

The 1961 Convention now has 48 parties (up from 37 at beginning of 2011).

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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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