Formerly stateless, Umijon’s family in Batken received assistance to obtain citizenship
Umijon gets on well with everyone in the area. Congenital deafness does not prevent the 20-year-old from doing work around the house, communicating by mobile phone and playing football with his peers.
“Our whole family moved to Uzbekistan in 1993. We worked there and our children studied at local schools. We used to have Uzbek documents, and we crossed the border using them. We decided to return to Kyrgyzstan in 2007, but there were already borders between the countries. A border officer took our Uzbek documents and issued us with temporary Kyrgyz documents. We lived with them until 2018”, says Umijon’s father Jeenbek.
The family now lives in Batken, not far from the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Father Jeenbek is busy with his household, while his wife and daughter-in-law are at work. His son Umijon helps him a lot. After they moved to Kyrgyzstan the family worried about him the most.
“I attended a specialized boarding school for deaf children in Uzbekistan and then the borders were closed. I ended up on this side of the border, but the school was on the opposite side. I stopped studying in Grade 9. There were no specialized schools near our new house, but there was one in Jalalabad. I couldn’t get a certificate of general education because my documents were not valid. My parents wanted to support me and they ordered sign language textbooks from Uzbekistan so I could communicate with gestures, but people understand me anyway. I think I can feel what they want to tell me,” Umijon smiles.
Many ethnic Kyrgyz and others were left in limbo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of people could not obtain documents due to ignorance and the imperfection of the legal framework. Bureaucracy in civic registration system made it extremely difficult to obtain citizenship. During a five year project to identify and resolve cases of statelessness, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), together with its partners, identified more than 10,000 people in the south of the country who needed help. Many of them had the “red” passports of the former Soviet Union.
“In Soviet times we did not need passports, because the borders were open”, says Umijon’s father. “We crossed the borders and didn’t think that one day we would end up behind a border without documents. At first you do not know what to do and where to go. Then you gradually come to the conclusion that if you do not start sorting out the problem your children will suffer. We are ordinary people, I will retire soon, Umijon should also have been receiving a disability benefit. Time passed relentlessly. I went to a passport office with one goal – to understand what to do next – and I heard about the lawyers who were visiting houses and asking if residents had problems with documents. Soon after that they came to our house as well. They helped us apply for the status of “kayrylman” (ethnic Kyrgyz individuals who have moved to Kyrgyzstan), and a year later I received official notification that I had been awarded citizenship. I obtained my passport in 2014.”
Fergana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB)has been providing assistance to stateless persons and refugees since 2003. By the time UNHCR launched the global #IBelong campaign in 2014, to end statelessness by 2024, FVLWB already had extensive experience in the field.
“In 2014, with funding from UNHCR, we were able to create mobile legal clinics and inform the general public about the problem. We found out that Kyrgyzstan’s part of the Fergana Valley – a densely populated region of Central Asia that also includes parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – was the most problematic territory, with more than 10,000 people living without documents. We visited remote mountainous areas in our Lada Nivas, and where driving a car was impossible we rode horses. In the five years of the campaign, we were able to help 10,820 people in the south of the country”, said Azizbek Ashurov, director of FVLWB.
Immediately after obtaining citizenship, Jeenbek applied for documents for his son Umijon, so that he could receive a disability allowance and continue his education, if possible. Umijon received a passport in 2018.
“It made me happy. My disability has never made me upset, but I was very worried about the documents I didn’t have. Now I’m planning my future. I am currently working part time as a builder to support my parents financially. In my spare time I play football, and I will start learning a foreign language soon. I dream of seeing Arsenal, my favourite English club, playing a game.”
The problems with documentation occurred mainly in border areas, where people only had Soviet identity documents, or among child citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic who had never received birth certificates.
“We started implementing a global plan to eradicate statelessness with the motto: “Not a single village, not a single citizen in Kyrgyzstan should be left without attention.” The work was conducted through 60 mobile groups, which included our staff, members of local self-governance bodies and our partner lawyers. We identified more than 14,000 stateless persons between 2014 and 2017. Of these, 57 are awaiting confirmation of their citizenship, but we consider these cases already to be resolved, as all the necessary documents have been collected and the required procedures have been completed.” said Muhabat Pratova, Head of the Department for Registration of the Population and Civil Status under the State Registration Service of the Kyrgyz Republic.
According to Yasuko Oda, UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan’s political will and the digitalization of civil status registration made a difference.
“The key was the decision to conduct country-wide mapping and country-wide registration. That was quite courageous, Different decisions were required at various levels, and the State Registration Service was particularly active to ensure that everybody was registered. I have been working with the five countries in Central Asia over the years, and I really feel that everybody understands the issue. They are all really eager to find solutions. It is not easy, because it requires many ministries, different sections of the ministries, various departments, and it touches on legislation, civil registry, local government, central government, and the Constitution. Collaboration is essential. We are glad that we were able to help Kyrgyzstan to resolve the statelessness problem.”