Hendricks commends efforts to end statelessness in Côte d'Ivoire

News Stories, 22 July 2014

© UNHCR/N.Strum
In western Côte d'Ivoire, Barbara Hendricks distributed birth certificates to children in a move to help reduce the risk of statelessness.

ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, July 22 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency's Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks recently met with stateless people in Côte d'Ivoire, where she saw first-hand how government efforts are helping to resolve a problem affecting hundreds of thousands of people countrywide.

Hendricks visited the West African country, which has one of the biggest stateless populations on the continent, last month to raise awareness in the lead-up to the mid-September global launch of UNHCR's 10-year campaign to end statelessness.

"A stateless person is someone who is like a ghost they are invisible to all the things we take for granted," said the Goodwill Ambassador. "Imagine how it feels to not exist in the eyes of the law to not be able to go to school, take an exam, open a bank account, travel, get married or register your children's birth. All doors are closed and this is deeply frustrating limiting your life and your family's ability to move forward."

Based on data from the Ivoirian government, UNHCR estimates that 700,000 people are stateless or of undetermined nationality in the country. The high number is due to several factors: After Independence in 1960, changes in the legal code prevented the descendants of immigrants from acquiring Ivoirian citizenship. During the 2002 civil war and the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis, the destruction of civil registries and the loss of individual documentation made it very difficult for people to prove their citizenship. Abandoned children are not covered by national legislation and therefore do not have Ivoirian citizenship. In addition, tens of thousands of children are at risk of statelessness because they have never been registered at birth and therefore cannot prove their national affiliation.

Antoinette, 35, was born in Bondoukou, close to the Ghanaian border, but migrated to Yopougon in Abidjan to become a trader. Although she has a birth certificate and even an Ivorian national identity (ID) card issued in the 1990s, she was rejected when she applied for the new ID card in 2008. Since then, she must annually obtain an "attestation d'identité", an administrative document issued by local municipalities, which has little real value, and has not been able to prove her citizenship.

When the Goodwill Ambassador asked her what being stateless meant in practical terms, she said, "I cannot open a bank account, I cannot vote, I cannot help my children as much as I would like, I cannot buy land, it's a real nightmare."

Côte d'Ivoire has just begun a new phase of issuing ID cards and it remains to be seen whether Antoinette will be able to prove her nationality.

During her visit to SOS Village, an orphanage in Aboisso about 115 km east of Abidjan, Hendricks spoke with children who received birth certificates with the help of UNHCR and its Government partner, the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Public Liberties.

One girl recalled arriving in the orphanage school in July 1997 and feeling powerless and isolated from the rest of society because she did not have a legal identity. "It was a real joy to finally receive my papers; I could not help but be overjoyed," she said.

The students gave themselves impressive pseudonyms like philosopher Denis Diderot and writer Guy de Maupassant. They were full of hope that their documents could help them achieve their ambitions to become lawyers, architects and historians.

On a field trip to Dronguine in western Côte d'Ivoire, Hendricks participated in a ceremony organized by UNHCR and its Government partner, the Service d'Aide et d'Assistance aux Réfugiés et Apatrides, in which children received birth certificates for the first time. These documents confirm their name, place and date of birth, and parentage, and reduce the risk of statelessness.

Elise, a mother of three, told Hendricks, "Having documents for my children gives me great joy. It took us a while to obtain them because of the war. A child without documents is like a child who is not born, does not exist. Now, they have the opportunity to do whatever they want, go to school, work and have a future."

The Government of Côte d'Ivoire has made significant progress in addressing the problem of statelessness. In October 2013 it acceded to the two international conventions relating to statelessness. It is currently leading a registration campaign that allows stateless people who meet specific criteria to acquire Ivoirian citizenship through simple declaration, and will host a Regional Conference on Statelessness in the fall of 2014.

Hendricks' June 24-26 visit concluded with meetings with the country's Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Public Liberties, Gnenema Coulibaly, and Minister of Solidarity, Family, Women and Children, Anne Desiree Ouloto.

Minister Coulibaly emphasized, "The eradication of statelessness is a real priority for the Ivoirian Government. It is an honour for us that Mrs. Barbara Hendricks has lent her image, voice and person to this cause. Every person in Côte d'Ivoire needs and deserves an identity. You can count on the full commitment of the Ivoirian Government to tackle this issue."

Citing it as a good example, Hendricks added, "Côte d'Ivoire is taking positive steps to eradicate statelessness. This comes at a time when UNHCR will be launching a worldwide campaign in September to eradicate statelessness in 10 years and ensure that an estimated 10 million people who are stateless across the globe are given the same rights as the rest of us."

By Nora Sturm in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

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UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

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Barbara Hendricks and UNHCR

Hendricks' activities for refugees since 1986.

Barbara Hendricks Biography

Read about Hendricks' life and career.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

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Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

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