Being accountable to stateless children and youth: The 2016 UNHCR NGO Consultation session on statelessness
The UNHCR NGO Consultations is an important event in the refugee and statelessness calendars, providing a forum each summer for NGOs from around the world congregate in Geneva. Where they meet for three days of discussion, debate and networking amongst each other and with UNHCR’s senior management. The theme of the 2016 UNHCR NGO Consultations was ‘youth’, and one of the sessions at the Consultations focussed exclusively on stateless youth. In organising this statelessness session, for which ISI served as the NGO Focal Point,1 we aimed to engage in an exercise of direct accountability to stateless children and youth from around the world.
NGOs, UNHCR and other actors have a crucial role to play in mobilising action to promote and fulfil the human rights of stateless children and youth to address, and ultimately solve their statelessness. In order to do this more effectively, stronger and more sustained efforts are needed to place stateless children and youth at the centre and ensure we collectively hear their voices, take direction from them and are held accountable to them. It was this idea of direct accountability which served as the basis for the session.
One of the main challenges of including stateless people in such global events, is that their lack of nationality can make it impossible for them to travel abroad. Given this context, to be as inclusive as possible of different voices, we directly solicited questions from stateless children & youth (through NGO partners and UNHCR offices) beforehand. Through this process, questions from over 40 stateless children and youth, from 12 countries were collected.2 The expectation was that these young stateless people’s inputs would instigate thought-provoking discussions on issues that directly affect them, even though they could not be physically present in Geneva. The aim of this process was to both maximise the participation of stateless children and youth and to promote our collective accountability to them.
The session began with an overview of some of the challenges that stateless children and youth face around the world, which was given by Jyothi Kanics, an independent researcher and child rights expert based in Europe. This was followed by the question and answer session, at which a selection of the questions from stateless children that were grouped into three categories (questions about my past, my present and my future) were put to the participating NGO and UNHCR personnel. Below, are some of the questions that were asked:
1) Questions about my past
How did I become stateless and what is being done to protect other children from this problem?
- How is it possible that a person is stateless? What is the point of establishing that a person is stateless if no real effort is being made to address this? (A.S, 24 years old, South Africa)
- Why was I deprived of my documents when I had the right to them? (P.G, Serbia, 24 years old)
- Why can’t we get citizenship through our mothers, who gave birth to us and raised us? Are women not worthy enough to pass on citizenship to their children? Maybe you are doing something, but we feel nothing. (Diwakar, Nepal).
2) Questions about my present
Why am I disadvantaged and denied access to basic rights and what is being done to protect me?
- Do I look any different than anyone here? I look normal and yet I am different than anyone else who was born here (Subhashini, 12, Malaysia)
- Why am I condemned that my nationality is always called into question each time, for any administrative action that I have to deal? (Felana, 25, Madagascar)
- Why did I have to face such embarrassment in school, for not having a birth certification? Why do I have to limit my dreams and compromise with my studies? Why did the human rights organizations not see that there are thousands of people like me, who are prisoners of their own country? What actions are the organisations ready to take to free prisoners like us from this isolation? (Nikita, Nepal. Similar questions by Frederick, South Africa; Neha, Nepal; Yod Pong, Thailand; Zalina, Tajikistan, Kourban, Madagascar; Vardan, Bulgaria and others).
- I was born in Thailand in the forest. My parents were born in Thailand, but could not speak Thai and nobody told them that they had to inform the officers when their child was born. I do not have nationality. I cannot work and I am so afraid every time I travel that I would be arrested and the police would tell me to get off the bus. What do I do? (Wa, 22, Thailand)
3) Questions about my future
What hope do I have for my future and what steps are being taken to grant me an appropriate nationality?
- Will we always have to resort to illegal means to live like everyone else? What should we do to raise awareness about this problem? (Sakina, 20, Madagascar)
- How long will I have to wait to have equal rights to other people? I have been fighting for it my whole life. (Phra, 21, Thailand).
- To avoid discrimination that I have always experienced throughout my life due to my name, will I have to deny my religion and avoid Muslim names for my children to give them a greater chance to be recognised as Malagasy citizens? (Yousef, 24, Madagascar)
- How long must I wait? How can I remedy immediate needs? 10 years’ worth of life has been taken from me. What will happen when my case has been sorted out? And then what? Will I be financially supported for the 10 years of education I have lost? Will I be given a chance somewhere to start a decent living? I pray that mine, and many other stateless people’s futures will soon start (Khumbulani Frederick Ngubane, South Africa).
This session was very much an experiment, and as the NGO Focal Point for the 2016 statelessness session, we were nervous to whether it would be a success or not. What followed surpassed our expectations, as the session allowed for a sincere discussion on difficult issues. It was a starting point, which showed the importance of consulting with and being held accountable to stateless persons in all our work, at global, regional, national and local levels. The following reflections stuck with me, in particular:
- When stateless people are represented in movements and actions to address statelessness, it tends to be in the more passive and victim-centric role of the person whose terrible life is on display through an interview or testimony. While it is important for the world to know what hardship is inflicted on the stateless, it is more important for the world to hear the true voice of stateless people. Not the voices which only relate their life stories, but the voices which speak with agency about what they want, what frustrates them and how they feel about the way things are looking. This agency, which came with the simple act of stateless youth and children asking questions of NGOs and UNHCR as a way to hold them accountable, was refreshing and profound. The act of subverting the traditional victim role into one of active questioning and assertion, was an important one which must be repeated. This is the essence of true mobilisation.
- The sense of urgency that many of the questions engendered, posed a real challenge to participants. A reminder that every decision we take or do not take, has a real impact in terms of the ongoing experience of statelessness for so many. Particularly children, for whom ‘time’ is a more valuable currency and ‘lost time’ is more irrevocable, the need to address statelessness so they can get on with their lives is the most urgent thing in the world. A person’s childhood does not wait for project proposals or conferences, it passes, and with it, so much vitality and potential. It was important to hear this sense of urgency directly from stateless children and youth; a reminder that we have to redouble our efforts.
- The respect that participants gave the questions and the seriousness with which they grappled with them was reassuring. Conference sessions can often be messy affairs, with participants ‘multi-tasking’ - laptops and smartphones in full operation - or being less willing to listen and more inclined to push their agenda forward and tweet about it later. This session had a different feel to it, there was a sense of focus and attention which was encouraging. In responding to questions, participants bounced ideas off each other, built on what was said before, acknowledged the challenges they faced and took responsibility. At this session, we were acutely aware that we were really speaking to those who we are ultimately working for – the stateless.
As an ‘experiment’, the session worked, however the session can certainly be improved upon in future. A key limitation was that ultimately, the stateless children and youth did not have the opportunity to participate in the debates that were stimulated by their questions. With advances in technology, it may be possible to video-conference people in, so that future events are even more dynamic and meaningful. There is also the question of ‘reporting back’ and following up through action – which are so important to ensure that events such as this lead to something tangible. Language complicates the picture, but can be overcome.
The strongest message to me, was that we need to develop a much stronger culture of consultation, participation and accountability in our programming. Global events such as the UNHCR NGO Consultations are a good platform to get this message across, however, real accountability and consultation should happen in daily operations. It adds cost and time, and can be messy. But keeping stateless people at the centre of our focus is essential if we are to effectively mobilise to achieve real change.