Sixty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “everyone has the right to a nationality,” however, millions of people around the world still do not enjoy this right. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 10 million people around the world are stateless, which means that they are not considered nationals by any state under the operation of its laws.
Such individuals are regarded as “de jure” (legally) stateless persons. However, there are millions more who are at risk of statelessness because they face problems proving their nationality; for instance, because they were never registered at birth or because they lack valid identity documents. The problem of statelessness is intensified by a general lack of information and unwillingness on the part of some governments to explore the problem and find a legal solution for those who are stateless.
The United Nations General Assembly placed a special responsibility on the UNHCR to assist states to resolve the problem of statelessness and it is estimated that there are more than 100,000 stateless persons in Central Asia. Largely, they became stateless as a result of not obtaining national documentation upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The majority of those at risk of statelessness so far registered by governments and the UNHCR in the region are, in fact, undocumented citizens of the countries in which they reside. For them, the main but not the only issue is documentation and proof of nationality, rather than the absence of nationality.
Statelessness remains a challenge for the Central Asian region. Stateless persons having no identity documents have no access to even basic human rights, including social and economic rights as well as the right to education, family and property rights and the ability to travel easily inside and outside their country. Undocumented populations also create risks for governments, as having people on their territory lacking documentation can raise security concerns. Some progress is being made in Central Asia to solve these problems. For example, in Kazakhstan, the government continues efforts to provide documentation and recently, with the help of UNHCR partner the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human of Rights and Rule of Law, a number of undocumented persons were assisted to acquire confirmation of their citizenship allowing them access to all the rights that are guaranteed to Kazakh citizens.
In November 2014, the UNHCR launched the #IBELONG campaign, which aims to eradicate statelessness on the global level in the next 10 years. In this region, the UNHCR works closely with governments and other partners to prevent and reduce statelessness as part of this global campaign. This work includes identification of stateless persons and provision of free legal assistance to them; assistance in acquiring documents and legal status in the country through existing procedures such as confirmation of nationality, acquisition of official status of stateless person and restoration of nationality. In terms of preventing statelessness, the UNHCR works with the government to advocate for necessary legislative amendments as well as calling for accession to two international UN Conventions on statelessness – the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. So far, in Central Asia, only Turkmenistan has acceded to these two conventions on statelessness.
The political will of states is the main driving force to prevent and reduce statelessness. With the political will of states, statelessness can be eradicated through legislative, administrative and other measures. States can prevent new instances of statelessness by reforming their nationality laws to remove gaps and discriminatory provisions that lead to statelessness. Additionally, inclusion of safeguards in national legislation will prevent future cases of statelessness. By acceding to the UN statelessness conventions, states demonstrate their commitment to human rights and their cooperation with the international community to reduce and eliminate the problem. Statelessness is often inherited from one’s parents. It is essential that states resolve current cases as a means of preventing future statelessness. In Central Asia, governments have demonstrated their interest in solving this problem and with intensified efforts, the region can become the first region in the world to completely eradicate statelessness.
The author is UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Asia.