UNHCR urges 35,000 Crimean Tatars to apply for citizenship before year end

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said today some 35,000 Crimean Tatars banished from their homeland during a Stalinist purge more than half a century ago stand to miss the chance to acquire Ukrainian citizenship unless they renounce their current Uzbek citizenship to take advantage of the simplified Ukrainian procedures by the year-end.

UNHCR has been sending mobile teams to remote villages informing these people to request release from their Uzbek citizenship and to apply for Ukrainian citizenship before a 31 December deadline.

More than 400,000 Crimean Tatars were deported to Central Asia during a purge of minorities Soviet leader Josef Stalin carried out in May 1944. At the end of the cold war era and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, a quarter of a million returned to their traditional homeland in Crimea, southern Ukraine. The rest of them remained scattered in Central Asia, largely in Uzbekistan.

Of the returnees, 85,000 had been stateless or without access to Ukrainian citizenship. Because of this, they faced problems settling back in their native land, where they had no right to social and other benefits. Since 1996 UNHCR has been working with the authorities and counselling the returning Crimean Tatars on citizenship issues.

As a result, 50,000 have acquired Ukrainian citizenship to date. This includes more than 25,000 people who had become stateless because they returned between November 1991 and July 1992, thus falling in the legal gap between the adoption of the new citizenship laws by then newly independent Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Another 25,000 Crimean Tatars have benefited from the Agreement on the Prevention of Dual Citizenship signed by the Ukraine and Uzbek governments in August 1998, which allowed for an accelerated and simplified procedure for renouncing Uzbek citizenship and acquiring Ukrainian citizenship. But there still remain 35,000 people who must apply before the year end deadline.

There are also an estimated 20,000 Crimean Tatars who have returned to Ukraine from other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Many are facing practical difficulties in acquiring Ukrainian citizenship. UNHCR continues to assist the Ukrainian government to negotiate citizenship agreements with other countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

UNHCR protects and assists refugees and promotes respect for the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. The reduction of statelessness is also a mandated responsibility of UNHCR. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the two main international instruments intended to prevent and reduce the incidence of statelessness. UNHCR has launched an accession campaign to encourage all states to ratify the international instruments related to refugees and stateless persons by the year 2000.