What: IOHR was the official media sponsor of the World Conference on Statelessness
When: 26 – 28 June 2019
Where: The Hague, The Netherlands
Carol Batchelor from UNHCR stated that the true statelessness figure was not known as only a third of States had reported a statelessness figure close to 4 million. The rule of thumb is that every ten minutes another child is born stateless, so the conference could not be more timely to raise awareness.
Without the anchor of life documents, starting with a birth certificate and a passport, stateless people do not have access to the same protections as individuals who do hold a nationality. They are denied education, healthcare, housing, employment, social welfare, and in some cases they are even unable to marry.
Some are stateless due to historical migration or boundary changes, while others find themselves branded “illegal residents” when the country of their birth decides they are now undesirable. Many are trapped in the downward spiral of generations of no paper trail, so new births cannot be registered and children are born stateless. They are invisible ghosts in a system that has become so dependent on electronic records, the people simply don’t exist and can’t gain entry to the claim their identity.
To raise awareness of this epidemic issue, IOHR partnered with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion to bring a global conference together to seek remedial action. IOHR is calling for the UN to appoint a Special Representative on the issue of statelessness as well as dedicate an International Day against Statelessness; 13 December.
At the World Conference on Statelessness, the only global conference of its kind, IOHR joined 290 activists, advocates, academics and artists as well as over 120 speakers from 60 countries to discuss the real challenge statelessness poses to equality, inclusion, security, rights and development in the world today.
On some of the conference panels there was an empty chair to represent all of those who could not attend as they have no travel documents or would face retribution if they spoke up. IOHR TV interviewed those activists who represented them to amplify their voices advocating for a solution to eradicate statelessness.
Key themes were identified and the intersectionality of the causes of statelessness exposed. From birth registration restrictions to arbitrary detention due to no documentation, the imposition of statelessness through ethnic cleansing by legislation change, migration due to conflict and border boundary shifts, through to targeted citizenship stripping; the activists’ voices spoke of their need for an identity and to be treated as human beings.
Each region of the world was represented, highlighting the global impact of statelessness. Even the host nation of the Netherlands has 55,000 stateless within its borders. The Americas sessions highlighted the crisis in the Dominican Republic, where mothers of Haitian decent or mixed race families receive differentiated “pink” birth certificates that register their children as “other”. Activists from the Bahamas described how gender impacted a mother’s right to give her citizenship to her child, while the crisis of the Venezuelan stateless received much attention. New research on the impact of technology and security fears was identified in French Guiana and Suriname. Here the historical river boundaries between countries meant that tribal minority groups living along the arable banks of the remote river had never been registered. Now the French borders have been secured, leaving those without papers stranded and even those with French I.D having to cross hundreds of miles of difficult terrain to register new births within a 3-day period.
The ‘United Stateless’ activist group videoed their representation as they cannot leave the United States. Many still live in fear of deportation and the inhumane treatment of children in Texas detention centres has once again reached the front pages.
Statelessness in the Middle East was represented by representatives from the various tribes battling for their rights in the Gulf. The ‘Bidoon’ – meaning ‘without nationality’ in Arabic – a stateless minority from Kuwait were represented and told the delegates their harrowing statelessness story. Other groups came from Bahrain, Oman and two members of the Qatari Al-Ghufran tribe came to the conference to share their fight for the state of Qatar to acknowledge their people as Qatari. Addressing the participants, they called for help as their members live in fear of discovery and “can’t go to all the conferences as [they] are just men wanting justice; not human rights experts.”
They described the acts of the Qatari Prime Minister and Interior Minister forcing them to be quiet with the threat that “[they] will reach to find them, even if they are outside Qatar.”
However, they came to the Hague to present the case of the Al-Ghufran tribe and “to implore the international communities to give [them] access to lawyers, journalists and international human rights organisations to help put pressure on the Qatari Government to recognise their claim to the citizenship that was stripped of all Al-Ghufran in 1996.
Asia faces the largest stateless crisis with the Rohingya people still fighting citizenship deprivation on racist and ethnic cleansing grounds. IOHR supported Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin to join the conference panel: ‘Strengthening a unified human rights voice on the Rohingyas’. Sheikh Mohamed Belal, H.E Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Netherlands was candid in his assentation that:
“The Burmese government needs to stop treating and calling the Rohingya people termites or pests and start to treat them as human beings. The solution is that simple. The international community must come together and tell Myanmar that enough is enough”
Bangladesh has been hosting over a million Rohingya refugees fleeing the genocide and destruction of their families and homes, for almost two years in camps. The pressure on them is palpable, with the need to provide education to over 450,000 Rohingya children so that the next generation of Rohingyas do not grow up destined to poverty.
The panel discussed the impact of China and Russia blocking the Security Council so the focus has moved to seeking a regional solution via the ASEAN. However, these are being influenced by the Burmese government while the Rohingyas are not being given access to this pathway.
Rohingya activist Hafsar Tamersuddin described restrictions on movement for those who remain in Myanmar and the struggle therefore to access food and water or healthcare so many Rohingyas are facing malnutrition and likelihood of health issues. However, when asked what outcome she sought she responded:
“The number one priority for Rohingya people is the right to our nationality and our right to return to our land. We are Burmese. It is so important to be recognised as the citizens that we are and not labelled stateless. We know where we are from and where we belong”
John Packer, Professor of International conflict resolution and Human Rights Director of the University of Ottawa Canada, called for the international community not to be complicit in genocide and called on any or all of the 55 signatories to the Genocide convention to bring a case against Myanmar for their treatment of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities facing persecution in Rakine state.
At the conference, IOHR, as the official media sponsor, broadcast live from the sessions with reports from IOHR TV presenter Trish Lynch, a former CNN and Sky News reporter. She interviewed key participants and panelists, documenting questions and reflections from the event. Guest, Maha Mamo, was declared stateless at birth even though she was born in Lebanon to Syrian parents. She spent a life deprived of schooling, the right to travel, the right to work, the right to be a citizen of any country. She never gave up, she contacted every university, embassy and influential person she could. Last year, after years of fighting for her rights, she was granted Brazilian citizenship. Her message was clear for all stateless people:
“educate yourself in the laws of the country, don’t be disrespectful, don’t take NO for any answer and never give up.”
IOHR was also filming the Cancelled Arts programme and its artwork and performances as well as participants’ reactions.
Valerie Peay, Director of IOHR, was a panelist on “Transforming the Narrative Landscape: Advocacy, Activism & Art”, one of the Grand Challenges sessions where she spoke of the use of IOHR TV as a vital part of advocacy and campaigning.
“IOHR TV can amplify the work of all of the academics, civil society participants and on the ground agencies striving to bring attention to the challenges and obstacles facing stateless people. Our reach across media makes us the perfect place to capture the stories unfolding at this conference to make sure these voices are heard loudly.”
Louise Pyne-Jones, Head of Research, participated in an expert meeting on citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism measure and moderated “Histories of Statelessness”, a panel discussion. Ash Naji, IOHR Head of Communications, led the conference’s media training workshop.
Statelessness is a key area of focus for IOHR and during the ongoing debate about IS returnees from Syria, IOHR has worked to shine a light on the situation of the innocent children trapped in Syria and other conflict areas. The campaign #SaveSalmaan, broadcast by the BBC and other publications, has fought for the safe return to Britain for these children and served as a stepping stone for a wider discussion in the UK on the rights of children and the European debate of citizenship stripping, against the backdrop of Germany announcing it will strip German IS fighters of their citizenship.
IOHR is also campaigning for the removal of the UK government’s fee of £1012 on every child who wishes to register for British citizenship #childrenNotProfit. Paying for access to government services that children are entitled to is a block to their rights.