RI on Capitol Hill: Speaking Out in Support of the Stateless

By Gabriella Hecht

Only weeks after Refugees International President Dan Glickman testified at a Congressional hearing in support of the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, RI co-hosted an event with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency on Capitol Hill to raise awareness of the nearly 12 million stateless individuals worldwide who face the daily nightmare of having no nationality.

Congressional staffers, NGOs, State Department representatives and members of the media heard remarks from RI’s newly-elected Board Chair Eileen Shields-West, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alexander Aleinikoff, Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary Esther Olavarria, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA), and Refugees International’s Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives Maureen Lynch.

Ms. Shields-West moderated the panel and opened the event with the debut of the UNHCR video, “Stateless in the United States: Searching for Citizenship.” The film highlighted the journeys of Tatianna Lesnikova and Mohamed Arafi, two stateless individuals living in the United States, and the hardships that they face on a daily basis. Both Tatianna and Mohamed were present at the event, providing the audience with a personal link to the issue.

Deputy High Commissioner Alexander Aleinikoff described the plight of statelessness as a “silent denial of rights.” He urged the audience to recognize that these rights are taken for granted by most of the world and that in order to identify a solution for statelessness, we must recognize the “right to have rights.” Describing UNHCR’s mission to work with nations as well as individuals to combat the problem of statelessness, he affirmed the organization’s support for the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 and called for the audience to follow suit.

In her remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary Esther Olavarria reaffirmed the Department of Homeland Security’s commitment to finding a solution to statelessness. She said that although the department is limited in its abilities to combat this problem, there is much more that it can and should do for stateless individuals who comply with its rules and requirements. Particularly troubled by the fact that stateless individuals living in the United States must face life-long hardships such as re-registering every month with DHS, she called for a legislative solution and expressed her support for the Refugee Protection Act of 2010. It is extremely important, she said, to identify cases of statelessness in order to ensure that these people do not fall through the cracks.

Representative Berman reminded us that the United States does more to help stateless individuals than any other country. He expressed his hope that this same spirit of helping the voiceless, a foundation upon which this country was founded, will continue to remain a priority for the United States.

RI’s Senior Advocate Maureen Lynch helped the audience to comprehend the sheer enormity of the issue of statelessness, comparing the 12 million stateless individuals worldwide to the entire population of Greece. She highlighted recent successes achieved in countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal to help end statelessness, especially in terms of defining nationalities. She called on the audience to speak out both to foreign governments as well as to our representatives in Congress. Like the other panelists, she emphasized the importance of passing the Refugees Protection Act of 2010 to help give organizations like RI, UNCHR, and DHS the tools they need to combat statelessness.

Tara Magner, Senior Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee was in the audience and provided information about the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, which was introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman, Senator Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). She gave the audience insight into the bill’s provisions, discussing how it is modeled after current legislation to make it as simple and effective as possible. One such provision would put eligible stateless people in a “conditional status” for a specific period of time, guaranteeing them basic rights like the ability to travel and protection from detention.

The problem of statelessness is a largely unknown issue and yet it affects millions. Last week’s event promoted greater dialogue among policy makers, helping to raise the visibility of this issue and push for concrete solutions.

-- Gabriella Hecht, Congressional Intern


RI on Capitol Hill

Gabriella, your informative summary of this event raised my awareness and interest in this cause. Education is a core beginning. Persevere.


beautifully written ms. gabriella. you convey vivid, concise, factual desciptions that apark a reader's interest and intrigue. i'm proud of your efforts baby girl. regards and much love always.--rob