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Kyrgyz lawyer wins UN prize for battling statelessness

Caravanserai and AFP

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Local residents stroll through downtown Bishkek August 31. Kyrgyz lawyer Azizbek Ashurov helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the UN Refugee Agency said in a statement. [Melisovskiy]

GENEVA, Switzerland -- A human rights lawyer who fought to end the "ghost" status of stateless inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan Wednesday (October 2) was named the winner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)'s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.

The UNHCR hailed Azizbek Ashurov for helping Kyrgyzstan to become the world's first country to end statelessness, working through his organisation Ferghana Valley Lawyers without Borders (FVLWB).

He has helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the agency said in a statement.

"I cannot stand still when I see an injustice," Ashurov said in the statement. "Statelessness is injustice."

"A stateless person is not recognised by any state," he said. "They are like ghosts. They exist physically, but they don't exist on paper."

Ashurov will receive his award at a ceremony in Geneva next Monday (October 7).

Thanks to his work, about 2,000 children have obtained a right to education and a future in which they will be free to travel, marry and work, the 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.

Ashurov was motivated by his own family's struggle to achieve Kyrgyz citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan.

'Stranded'

The Soviet republics had no internal border controls, and their citizens 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.

The upheaval left hundreds of thousands of inhabitants stateless throughout the region, including in Kyrgyzstan.

In the former Soviet Union, women were disproportionately affected by the problem, since they had been more likely to move to marry. And because of hereditary citizenship laws, their children inherited the same statelessness, the UNHCR said.

Ashurov helped found FVLWB in 2003 to provide free legal advice and assistance to stateless and undocumented individuals in the southern part of the country.

He and FVLWB formed mobile legal teams that travelled to remote areas of the south, sometimes on horseback, to find vulnerable and socially marginalised groups.

The Nansen prize, awarded annually, is named for Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who served as the first high commissioner for refugees during the failed League of Nations.

Last year's winner was South Sudanese doctor Evan Atar Adaha, who runs an overcrowded hospital to serve refugees from Blue Nile State.

Hardships of statelessness

Statelessness, which affects millions worldwide, leaves its victims politically and economically marginalised, often discriminated against and particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, according to the UNHCR.

Extremist recruiters are known to exploit the desperation and resentment of those subjected to such hardships.

However, for those Kyrgyz who have already crossed over into extremism or terrorism, the punishment could be loss of citizenship.

Kyrgyzstan this year enacted a law that will allow courts to revoke the citizenship of those convicted of terrorism, treason or separatism.

Under the law, crimes that could lead to the revocation of citizenship include carrying out or financing of terrorist activity, attendance of terrorist training sessions, participation in armed conflicts abroad, treason, attempts to overthrow the government, creation of an extremist organisation, and mercenary activities.

A court would rule on the prison terms and citizenship of Kyrgyz offenders. Someone lacking dual nationality could become stateless.

In other related news, Kyrgyz authorities a month ago said they were working to repatriate families of their citizens turned insurgents who were captured or killed in Syria and Iraq.

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