UN refugee agency-backed workshop tackles issue of statelessness in Central Asia

26 April 2007
UNHCR-built school in Turkmenistan

The United Nations refugee agency has completed a two-day workshop on curbing statelessness in Central Asia, where the disbanding of the Soviet Union and civil wars have resulted in thousands of people not having a fixed nationality.

“This is an important event for the countries of the former Soviet Union and the region,” said Tajikistan Government minister Gulchehra Sharipova of the event – mostly funded by the European Union (EU) and attended by 33 Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

“We have survived a period of transition and faced many new challenges, including statelessness,” he added. “Tajikistan has seen its full impact; many people had to leave during the war [in the 1990s] and are still facing problems today.”

Under international law, a stateless person is defined as someone not considered as a national by any State under its laws. There are at least 20,000 stateless people in Central Asia according to official figures, with more than 10,000 each residing in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, almost 200 in Tajikistan and an unknown number in Turkmenistan.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), however, believes that these numbers do not accurately reflect the situation on the ground. “These numbers are based on the number of people who have been issued stateless certificates by the authorities and do not represent the real scale of the problem,” the agency’s expert on the issue of statelessness, Philippe Leclerc, said.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan said they have taken steps to prevent statelessness by naturalizing refugees living within their borders.

But Mr. Leclerc remarked that identifying the stateless is extremely difficult.

“Many people live in the rural areas with old Soviet passports issued in 1974,” he said. “They have not all replaced these old passports with documents issued by the newly independent States and only come to know of their problem when they try to travel, seek employment or enroll their children in school.”

None of the Central Asian nations are party to the two international agreements on stateless peoples: the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

UNHCR’s job is to continually remind States of the huge scale of statelessness and to appeal to them to identify these people,” Mr. Leclerc said.

A key to preventing statelessness is registering all children and identifying gaps in national laws, such as the inability of women to pass on their citizenship to their children, renouncing one’s nationality without having procured another and the automatic loss of citizenship after long residence abroad.

Most participants at the workshop showed interest in launching campaigns in areas heavily populated by the stateless to inform them both of their rights and on how to address their problem.

Government representatives also said that their respective countries offer the same rights and benefits – including the right to travel with Government-issued documents but excluding the right to vote and the obligation to perform compulsory military service – to the stateless who have been granted permanent residence as they do to those with citizenship.

“The stability of a country depends o the stability of its population,” Mursalnabi Tuyakbayev of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. “I’m happy we could come and learn from each other’s experiences, and I hope we can continue this dialogue regularly.”

Zumrat Solieva, who heads Tajikistan’s Citizenship Unit which is part of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “We are planning a new nationality law and will make sure what we discussed here is taken into consideration.”

This workshop is the first in a series of regional activities on bolstering asylum systems in Central Asia set to end this December, and 80 per cent of the project is funded by the EU while UNHCR provides the remaining 20 per cent.


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