Kyrgyz lawyer wins UN prize for battling statelessness

A human rights lawyer who fought to end the "phantom" status of stateless people in Kyrgyzstan was on Wednesday named the winner of the UN refugee agency's prestigious Nansen Award. The UNHCR hailed Azizbek Ashurov for helping Kyrgyzstan become the world's first country to end statelessness, working through his organisation Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB). He and his organisation have helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the agency said. "I am full of emotions," Ashurov told journalists in Geneva, where the prize was announced. "As millions of people all around the world live with the terrible effects of statelessness, the lesson they can take from our work in Kyrgyzstan is clear," he said. "We can end statelessness. It is possible." His work has given around 2,000 children a right to education, and a future in which they will be free to travel, marry and work, UNHCR said. "Azizbek Ashurov's story is one of great personal resolve and tenacity," UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said in the statement. "His commitment to the cause of eradicating statelessness in Kyrgyzstan ... is a compelling example of the power of an individual to inspire and mobilise collective action," he added. - 'Stranded' - Ashurov was motivated by his own family's struggle to achieve Kyrgyz citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan. During the Soviet era, there were no internal borders, and people moved across Central Asia with only internal documentation. But after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, "many people became stranded across newly established borders, often with now-invalid Soviet passports or no means to prove where they were born," the UNHCR noted. This left hundreds of thousands of people stateless throughout the region, including in Kyrgyzstan. Statelessness, which affects millions worldwide, leaves people politically and economically marginalised, and particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, says the UNHCR. "Statelessness is injustice," Ashurov said. "In my country, stateless people had no proof of their identity, no papers. They could not go to school, get medical care, marry, own a house, open a bank account, travel or vote. "They lived like phantoms among us. Officially they did not exist." Ashurov helped found FVLWB in 2003 to provide free legal advice and assistance to stateless and undocumented people in the southern part of the country. He and the FVLWB formed mobile legal teams that travelled to remote areas of the south of the country, sometimes on horseback, to help stateless people apply for citizenship. - 'Invisible' - Ashurov, who will receive his award and the $150,000 prize money at a ceremony in Geneva next Monday, said the honour had saddled him with a "great responsibility". "I will have to work even harder in the future to prove worth of this recognition," he said. He wanted to help other countries in the region where statelessness remains a problem, he added. The Nansen prize, awarded annually, is named for Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who served as the first high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. Last year's winner was South Sudanese doctor Evan Atar Adaha, who runs an overcrowded hospital to service refugees from Blue Nile State. This year's prize marks the first time in the 65-year-history of the Nansen Award that it has gone to someone who works on statelessness. It comes five years after the UNHCR launched a global campaign to eradicate the problem worldwide. In 2014, UNHCR estimated there were around 10 million stateless people worldwide, but Grandi stressed Wednesday that the true numbers were unclear since many such people "are quite invisible". Some 220,000 formerly stateless people had obtained citizenship since the campaign was launched, insisting that "we need many more efforts", he told journalists.