A Kyrgyz lawyer who has helped thousands of stateless people gain citizenship has won this year’s Nansen Refugee Award, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced on October 2.
Azizbek Ashurov was named the winner of the $150,000 UN prize after Kyrgyzstan in July became the world’s first country to end statelessness.
During the Soviet era, there were no internal borders, and people moved across Central Asia with only internally issued documents.
But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union 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 said in a statement.
This led to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region, including in Kyrgyzstan, becoming stateless.
Statelessness affects millions throughout the world. It leads to political and economic marginalization, leaving people particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, according to UNHCR.
Ashurov and his organization Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB) have been offering free legal assistance to displaced, stateless, and undocumented people.
FVLWB has helped more than 10,000 people gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the demise of the Soviet Union, the UN agency said.
FVLWB legal activists visited such groups in remote mountain areas and worked closely with Kyrgyz authorities.
“Our main method was to work with the government,” Ashurov was quoted as saying by the UNHCR. “We managed to get their attention and make them our friends.”
“I cannot stand still when I see an injustice,” Ashurov said in the statement. “Statelessness is injustice.”
“A stateless person is not recognized 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 on October 7.
Ashurov was motivated by his own family’s struggle to achieve Kyrgyz citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan.
The Nansen award is named for Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who served as the first high commissioner for refugees during the failed League of Nations in the interwar period.
Last year’s winner was South Sudanese doctor Evan Atar Adaha, who runs an overcrowded hospital for refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile state.
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