Mobile legal services and litigation in Kyrgyzstan
Ferghana Lawyers is an NGO based in Kyrgyzstan, and is the host (coordinator) for the Central Asian Network on Statelessness (CANS). The Kyrgyz Republic is one of the fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country inherited numerous nationality issues that persist to this day. Tens of thousands of persons failed to exchange their old Soviet passports for new passports issued by the successor states. Thousands of persons still hold those Soviet passports, which have been invalid since 2000, leaving their bearers with no recognised documentation. State succession also resulted in unsettled borders with Kyrgyzstan’s Tajik and Uzbek neighbours. To this day, in some areas, it is impossible to tell where one country ends and another begins. Unsettled borders mean unsettled nationality, as those living in disputed areas fall into legal and political gaps.
The closure of international borders with Uzbekistan also contributes to statelessness. Until December 2013, there was complete freedom of movement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with inter-marriage and movement across the border being a common phenomenon. After the sealing of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, thousands of people found themselves stuck on either side of the border with expired documents, therefore increasing their risk of statelessness. Poor birth registration is another contributing factor for the persistence of statelessness in Kyrgyzstan. Several families in rural areas choose to give birth at home, and fail to register their new-borns with the civil registration authorities. Kyrgyz legislation also fails to ensure that every single child born on the territory is registered and receives a birth certificate. No one can tell how many stateless and undocumented persons reside in the country, as there are no reliable statistics.
Ferghana Lawyers has been working on nationality issues since its establishment in 2003. The NGO has vast experience working with refugees and stateless persons in and around Ferghana Valley, one of the troubled regions of Central Asia. Ferghana Lawyers also has a lengthy history of fruitful cooperating with the government and UNHCR, in ongoing efforts to address statelessness. It runs a number of stationary and mobile legal clinics in the region that provide free legal aid to stateless and undocumented persons.
Ferghana Lawyers has created and supervised 30 mobile legal teams that travel to remote areas of the country to provide legal consultations to beneficiaries. Under Kyrgyz legislation, there are two procedures to acquire nationality:
- Confirmation of citizenship, which is administered by the local Citizenship Determination Commissions, who process the cases of persons with undetermined citizenship within two months.
- Naturalisation, which is a procedure administered by the Citizenship Commission under the President of Kyrgyzstan, who determines cases of stateless persons within six months.
Since June 2014, Fergana Lawyers has provided legal aid to more than 9,400 stateless persons, of whom about 7,000 have already obtained solutions by way of citizenship determination or acquisition. The organisation also undertakes strategic litigation, and has contributed to setting important precedents in matters of statelessness.
Additionally, Ferghana Lawyers also works closely with governmental partners in developing proposals for legislative amendments, such as a proposal for the Creation of a National Stateless Status Determination and Documentation Procedure, that is hoped will reduce and prevent statelessness in the country.
Helping members of the Domari community
The Domari people are an ethnic minority group residing in southern Kyrgyzstan. This group, akin to the Roma of Europe, has been living in Kyrgyzstan for many decades. Many Domaris do not hold any official documents and face problems when applying for passports or citizenship determination. Their freedom of movement is limited, and it is difficult - if not impossible - for them to register marriages or the births of their children. They have no access to legal employment and social welfare. The Domari people face discrimination and are socially marginalised. At the same time, crimes and other exploitative actions that victimise this vulnerable group often remain undocumented and unreported.
The Urmanov family are a typical example of statelessness in the Domari community. The entire family – parents and four children - never had any documents, including birth certificates. In 2010, Ferghana Lawyers took this family’s case to court to assist them with obtaining documentation, but also to create a legal precedent of recognising the Domari’s legal place in the country. Fergana lawyers spent a lot of time and effort to represent the family’s interests before the newly established Citizenship Commission, and to have the Urmanov family legalised on the basis of primary medical documents. The successful pursuit of the case was the first such effort in the whole region. The litigation also impacted on the development of legislative changes in matters of citizenship, since most difficulties encountered by Ferghana Lawyers during the proceedings concerned faulty legislation and faulty administrative procedures. The resolution of the Urmanov case has contributed to fixing and strengthening the national procedures of legalisation and naturalisation of stateless persons in the country. The patience and the courage displayed by the Urmanov family during the lengthy litigation was the main inspiration throughout. The family are now full citizens of Kyrgyzstan.