The Spirit of Geneva – Traditional and New Actors in the Field of Statelessness

Manly, M. (2007). The Spirit of Geneva – Traditional and New Actors in the Field of Statelessness. Refugee Survey Quarterly. 26(4). 255-262.

I want to begin with a case study which will be familiar to many of you. In the context of the mass displacement which occurred in the lead-up to Bangladeshi independence in 1971, hundreds of thousands of Biharis1, who were widely viewed as collaborators of the Pakistani armed forces, were displaced within the borders of the newly created State of Bangladesh and ended up in IDP camps. In recognition of the central role of the ICRC during this turbulent period, one of the camps was named “Geneva Camp”. Between 1972 and 1993 approximately 178,000 Biharis were relocated to Pakistan with UNHCR assistance, but the relocation process eventually broke down and a large number remained in some camps in Bangladesh.2

Approximately 300,000 Biharis continue to live in 116 settlements. These settlements are overcrowded and have few facilities, but a complete resolution of the humanitarian plight of these Biharis has been hindered by the fact that they are generally viewed as not possessing Bangladeshi nationality. At the same time, they are not viewed as nationals of Pakistan. Although the vast majority were born in Bangladesh and know no other country, they often have not been able to exercise rights linked to nationality such as the right to vote, work in the civil service or acquire a passport. They often ? nd it dif? cult to obtain business licenses, register births and marriages or access public services. Although the High Court of Bangladesh has found in a series of cases that Biharis are nationals under Bangladeshi law, given the frequent inability to exercise the rights that attach to nationality they may be considered de facto stateless.

I began with this case because it illustrates the harsh realities faced by millions of stateless persons worldwide. It also shows that a long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis may require resolving statelessness. Like the situation in “Geneva camp”, a number of stateless situations around the world clearly illustrate the enduring importance of the humanitarian “Spirit of Geneva”: Just as citizenship and the ability of people to realize the rights associated with nationality provide an indispensable element of stability to life, statelessness is “a source of human insecurity and a cause of forced displacement, [and] may also pose a threat to national and regional stability.”3

Rather than focusing on the refugee mandate, which is well known by all, what I propose to do is to examine how UNHCR’s approach to the speci? c issue of statelessness is changing, the evolving manner in which some States view statelessness and how the Of?ce is working with other actors to assist States to address the problem.

I wish to begin, however, by looking at who is stateless and the UNHCR mandate to respond.

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