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UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Kyrgyz lawyer wins prestigious UN award for work to end statelessness

Lawyer Azizbek Ashurov, the winner of the 2019 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Lawyer Azizbek Ashurov, the winner of the 2019 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

(Keystone / Martial Trezzini)

A human rights lawyer from Kyrgyzstan has won the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Nansen Refugee Award, co-funded by Switzerland and Norway, for his work to end statelessness in the central Asian country. 

Azizbek Ashurov was chosen for the human rights award in Geneva on Wednesday. Over the past 16 years, via his organisation Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB),  he has helped over 10,000 people to gain Kyrgyz nationality after they became stateless following the break-up of the Soviet Union. These include 2,000 children, who now have the right to an education and freedom to travel, work and marry. 

Addressing UN reporters in Geneva, Ashurov described the “great honour” and emotion of receiving the award, which he dedicated to those helping “invisible” stateless people, as well as the Kyrgyzstan government, which supported his NGO. Ashurov said he was motivated by his own family’s difficult experience of achieving citizenship after arriving in Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He helped create FVLWB in 2003 to offer free legal advice and assistance to vulnerable displaced, stateless and undocumented people in the southern part of Krygyzstan.

“I cannot stand still when I see an injustice,” he said. “Statelessness is injustice. A stateless person is not recognized by any state. They are like ghosts. They exist physically, but they don’t exist on paper.”

UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Recent winners include South Sudanese surgeon Evan Atar Adahaexternal link, Sister Angelique Namaikaexternal link from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zannah Mustaphaexternal link, a lawyer and mediator from Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria.

The award, decided by a committee led by Switzerland and Norway, includes a commemorative medal and a $150,000 (CHF151,000) prize funded by both governments. 

Azizbek Ashurov “allowed the voice of stateless people to resonate loudly,” declared Swiss Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Valentin Zellweger. In Switzerland, the number of requests for stateless persons has increased fourfold in recent years to around 160 cases annually. 

Worldwide, statelessness affects an estimated ten million people, depriving them of legal rights or basic services and leaving them politically and economically marginalized, discriminated against and particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Around 200,000 stateless people have received official papers in recent years. A high-level meeting on this issue is due to take place next week at UNHCR in Geneva.


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