Putting Our Work into Focus
A picture tells a thousand words - and UNHCR has more than 250,000 of them dating back decades. The agency's photo library in Geneva is guardian of the world's largest collection of refugee-related photos covering nearly all of the major displacements of the last 60 years. These images provide a comprehensive portrait of the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people and the stateless in all corners of the globe, as well as the work of the thousands of UN staff who have helped them. Many of our best photos are showcased on this website and on the social networking site, Flickr. We offer the use of our photos free to the media.
Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils
Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.
The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.
Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.
Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.
2011 Yemen: Risking All for a Better Future
Plagued by violence, drought and poverty, thousands of people in the Horn of Africa leave their homes out of desperation every year. Seeking safety or a better life, these civilians - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - make the dangerous journey through Somalia to the northern port of Bossaso.
Once there, they pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden on smugglers' boats. They often wait for weeks in Bossaso's safe houses or temporary homes until a sudden call prompts their departure under the veil of night, crammed into small rickety boats.
Out at sea, they are at the whim of smugglers. Some passengers get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before reaching the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds of innocent people who die en route.
The Yemen-based Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS) has been helping these people since 1995. On September 13, 2011 UNHCR announced that the NGO had won this year's Nansen Refugee Award for its tireless efforts to assist people arriving from the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Statelessness among Brazilian Expats
Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.
In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.
In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.
"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."
Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.
The Nubians in Kenya
In the late 1880s, Nubians from Sudan were conscripted into the British army. The authorities induced them to stay in Kenya by granting them homesteads and issuing them British colonial passports. The Nubians named their settlement near Nairobi, Kibra, or "land of forest." In 1917, the British government formally declared the land a permanent settlement of the Nubians. Since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restric¬tions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship.
Statelessness in Viet Nam
Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.
Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.
Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.
UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.