Kyrgyz human rights lawyer wins UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award
A lawyer whose work has supported the efforts of the Kyrgyz Republic in becoming the first country in the world to end statelessness has been selected as the 2019 winner of the UN Refugee Agency’s Nansen Refugee Award.
Azizbek Ashurov, through his organization Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB), has helped well over 10,000 people to gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Among them, some 2,000 children will now have the right to an education and a future with the freedom to travel, marry and work.
Statelessness affects millions of people worldwide, depriving them of legal rights or basic services and leaving them politically and economically marginalized, discriminated against and particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
“Azizbek Ashurov’s story is one of great personal resolve and tenacity,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“His commitment to the cause of eradicating statelessness in Kyrgyzstan – an achievement secured in partnership with the Kyrgyz government and others across the country – is a compelling example of the power of an individual to inspire and mobilise collective action.”
As part of the Soviet Union, with no internal borders in place, people moved across Central Asia with internal documentation, acquiring residency and getting married. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the formation of new states, many people became stranded across newly established borders, often with now invalid Soviet passports or no means to prove where they were born. This left hundreds of thousands of people stateless throughout the region, including in Kyrgyzstan.
Women were disproportionately affected, often left without citizenship after marrying and settling outside of their own state before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of new borders. As a result of hereditary citizenship laws, their statelessness was passed onto their children.
Motivated by his own family’s difficult experience of achieving citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the dissolution, Ashurov helped to found FVLWB in 2003 to offer free legal advice and assistance to vulnerable displaced, stateless and undocumented people in the southern part of Krygyzstan.
“I cannot stand still when I see an injustice,” said Ashurov. “Statelessness is injustice. A stateless person is not recognized by any state. They are like ghosts. They exist physically, but they don’t exist on paper.”
“Our role in reducing statelessness is to help people do what they cannot do themselves. We don’t give them citizenship, we give them back a right that they should have had from birth.”
“I realised that if it was this difficult for me, with my education, and as a lawyer, then imagine how hard it must be for an ordinary person,” he said.
As more and more people approached FVLWB for help with citizenship issues, he turned the organization’s focus onto statelessness, working with others to map cases across the country for the first time and setting out to tackle the devastating problem once and for all.
Ashurov and FVLWB formed mobile legal teams which travelled to remote areas of the south of the country to find vulnerable and socially marginalized groups. In their mountainous country, the mobile legal teams relied on a battered four-wheel drive or travelled on horseback.
His close work with the Kyrgyz authorities, including on the launch of a temporary ‘amnesty’ for those without crucial papers, helped large numbers of stateless people to gain citizenship.
“Our main method was to work with the government,” said Ashurov. “We managed to get their attention and make them our friends. We were little warriors – but behind us was a big tank.”
“Similarly to Kyrgyzstan, a number of states in the wider region have initiated campaigns through which some 46,000 stateless people have so far been identified and over 34,500 cases have been successfully resolved to date.”
About UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award:
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Recent winners include South Sudanese surgeon Dr. Evan Atar Adaha, Sister Angélique Namaika from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer and mediator from Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria.
The award includes a commemorative medal and a US$150,000 monetary prize generously donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway. In close consultation with UNHCR, the laureate uses the monetary prize to fund a project that complements their existing work.
The Nansen Refugee Award program is funded in partnership with the Swiss Government, The Norwegian Government, the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva and the IKEA Foundation.
The 2019 Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony
The 2019 Award ceremony will take place on October 7 at the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva.
It will feature a performance by Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean and a keynote address by Nadine Labaki, the Lebanese director of the Cannes Jury Prize winner, and Oscar-nominated film, Capernaum. It will be hosted by award-winning South African TV presenter Leanne Manas. Other performers joining them on the night will be Swiss musician Flèche Love and German poets and stage performers Babak Ghassim and Usama Elyas.