Five years ago, in November 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a campaign to end statelessness in a decade. Halfway through the 10-year campaign, UNHCR is celebrating a major milestone: This July, Kyrgyzstan became the first country in the world to eradicate statelessness.
International aid certainly factored into Kyrgyzstan’s victory, but the work of finding and registering people without proof of nationality or citizenship fell on local government and civil society’s shoulders. One organization, Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, provided free legal help to more than 10,000 people living in Kyrgyzstan without formal citizenship over four years.
For this work, Azizbek Ashurov — a lawyer and human rights advocate from Kyrgyzstan who helped found Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders — was selected as the 2019 winner of the UN Refugee Agency’s Nansen Refugee Award.
“I can’t stay away when I see injustice,” Ashurov said. “And statelessness is an injustice.”
The UN estimates that there are more than 12 million stateless people worldwide; several hundred thousand are in Central Asia. When the Soviet Union dissolved, around 280 million people lost their citizenship — 60 million of whom were living in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Ashurov mentioned his own family’s experience of getting Kyrgyzstani citizenship after migrating from Uzbekistan as an inspiration for his work.
Gaps in the nationality laws of Soviet successor states meant that people in border regions, ethnic returnees, and labor migrants were especially vulnerable to becoming stateless. The problem was compounded because people without papers found themselves unable to register their children’s births, making statelessness an intergenerational challenge.
Ashurov’s award and Kyrgyzstan’s accomplishment are worth celebrating, but the conceptual contours of statelessness mean that it’s quite tricky to actually “eradicate.”
Statelessness is about filling gaps of citizenship policies, but it’s also about preventative measures tied to government capacity. Kyrgyzstan ranks quite low on world governance indicators for government effectiveness, meaning that institutions for providing public goods and services are weak. Without addressing government capacity, two demographic patterns threaten Kyrgyzstan’s status as the first country to end statelessness.
First, the same population flows that were risk factors immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union are still present in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s government has sponsored return migration of ethnic Kyrgyz from neighboring countries, but this streamlined citizenship process is more functional in theory than in practice. Without strengthening the institutions that govern migration, ethnic Kyrgyz who move from nearby countries like Tajikistan or Afghanistan are at risk for falling into the very citizenship limbo at the crux of the UNHCR campaign.
Moreover, even if authorities managed to secure documents and citizenship for every stateless person in Kyrgyzstan, the challenge of procuring birth certificates in rural areas or towns that lack efficient government services doesn’t go away. Every day, 460 babies are born in Kyrgyzstan, representing 460 opportunities for statelessness to reemerge as a problem in the country.
Reaching the UN goal for every person to be recognized as nationals by some country by 2024 will require more than just political will. If Kyrgyzstan is serious about “eradicating” statelessness, deeper bureaucratic reforms are needed than the legal clinics NGOs run around the country.