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Kyrgyz Lawyer Who Helped End Statelessness Wins Nansen Refugee Award

Nansen Prize laureate Kyrgyzstan's human rights lawyer Azizbek Ashurov looks on after a press conference on October 2, 2019 in Geneva.
Nansen Prize laureate Kyrgyzstan's human rights lawyer Azizbek Ashurov looks on after a press conference on October 2, 2019 in Geneva.

Human rights lawyer Azizbek Ashurov, who helped end statelessness in his home country of Kyrgystan, is this year’s winner of the UNHCR prestigious Nansen Refugee Award. The award is named after Fridjof Nansen — scientist, polar explorer and the first High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 10 million people around the world are stateless. Many in countries such as Myanmar, Turkey, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe live in a state of limbo. They are deprived of the basic rights of citizenship. They have no right to work, to get an education, healthcare, to get married or registered at birth.

They have been described as national ghosts.

Kyrgystan is the first country in the world to eliminate statelessness. Azizbek Ashurov, this year’s Nansen Laureate, did a great deal to make this happen. He and his organization, Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, have helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many people became stranded in newly formed states. Their Soviet passports were invalid, and they had no way to prove where they were born. Ashurov and his family were among those who had become stateless.

He says he was motivated to change his family’s situation and to help thousands of others regain their nationality. He tells VOA the first big challenge facing him, and his team was to persuade the government that ending statelessness would be of benefit to both the people and the country.

“On a practical level, actually our teams included officers on the passport desk from the government. And they worked together with us and visited rural areas, mountain territories, sometimes on horses. So, now, after five years… We have done the first step. We end existing cases or statelessness in my country,” he said.

FILE - Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees speaks during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 6, 2018.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi praises Ashurov’s achievement. He notes this is the first time the Nansen Award has been given to a champion of the stateless.

“We have never done it before. It was always more related to displacement and refugees… So, we want to really celebrate with Azizbek’s work. A personal commitment and a commitment of an organization to reducing this very negative phenomenon around the world,” he said.

Ashurov’s job is far from over. He and his foundation have formed mobile legal teams, which go to remote areas of the Central Asian country in search of vulnerable, socially marginalized groups to help them regularize their situation.

He says his foundation also is working to help thousands of other stateless people throughout the region escape their legal limbo by becoming citizens of their countries with all the benefits that confers upon them.