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2019 Nansen Refugee Award ‘a symbol of hope’ for the world’s stateless

The Nansen refugee award winner smiles with the high commissioner as he receives his award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi presents the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award to Kyrgyz human rights lawyer, Azizbek Ashurov in Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

Lawyer Azizbek Ashurov spent over a decade helping the Kyrgyz Republic to resolve all known cases of statelessness in a historic first.

A lawyer who spent over a decade championing the rights of more than 10,000 stateless people in the Kyrgyz Republic accepted the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award at a special ceremony tonight, calling the prize “a symbol of hope” for millions without citizenship worldwide.


At a prestigious event in Geneva’s Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, performances by Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean and Swiss musician Flèche Love set the scene for a celebration of Azizbek Ashurov’s ground-breaking work.

Ashurov was chosen for his outstanding 16-year commitment to ending statelessness in Kyrgyzstan, ensuring that those left stateless by the break-up of the former Soviet Union finally have citizenship.

Presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Ashurov’s story “one of great personal resolve and tenacity.”

“His commitment … is a compelling example of the power of an individual to inspire and mobilise collective action.”

“His commitment to the cause of eradicating statelessness in Kyrgyzstan – an achievement secured in partnership with the Kyrgyz government and others across the country – is a compelling example of the power of an individual to inspire and mobilise collective action,” said Grandi.

Ashurov runs Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, an organization first established in 2003 to offer free legal advice. It began tackling statelessness in 2007. In 2014, funding from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, helped to set up mobile legal clinics and map the problem.

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Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean performs an acoustic version of his hit ‘Me Rehuso’ at the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony in Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

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Poets Babak Ghassim and Usama Elyas perform at the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

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Swiss musician Flèche Love performs her song ‘Sisters’ at the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony in Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

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South African television presenter and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Leanne Manas hosts the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

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Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki speaks about statelessness at the 2019 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

A team of lawyers worked tirelessly, juggling up to 10 cases per day. Together, they scoured the Central Asian country to find people living deep in the shadows without papers. This year, in July, the last people without documents in Kyrgyzstan finally received citizenship – thanks in great part to Ashurov and his team.

“It is hard for me to describe how proud I am right now – and hard to describe the great responsibility I feel,” Ashurov told a rapt audience after receiving the award. “My young independent nation is facing many challenges. But it still found the political will to end statelessness.”

“This year’s Nansen Award … shows to the stateless people all over the world that their voices are heard. For them, this award is a symbol of hope.”

Ashurov is the latest in a long line of everyday heroes to be honoured with the annual award, named after the first High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

“What’s so impressive here is the personal commitment of their team to help tens of thousands of people – and how it will change the futures of the generations which follow,” the High Commissioner said in a speech.

“It sends such a powerful message – that statelessness can be solved – and the rewards of allowing people to say, ‘I Belong’, will deliver a legacy for generations.”

Statelessness blights the lives of millions of people globally. It robs them of basic rights such as access to health care, education, jobs and free movement, or even the ability to open a bank account or buy a SIM card for a mobile phone.

“This year’s Nansen Award … shows to the stateless people all over the world that their voices are heard.”

The break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s left hundreds of thousands across Central Asia stateless, including in Kyrgyzstan. Others were left in limbo due to gaps in legislation or marriages between different nationalities.

“Something as simple as opening a bank account is like climbing a mountain,” Nadine Labaki, director of Oscar nominated film Capernaum, reminded the audience. “All these are basic rights that most of us take for granted.”

Singer Danny Ocean performed his moving hit Me Rehuso about the love he left behind when he moved from his native Venezuela to the United States. Other performers at the event included Swiss musician Flèche Love and German poets and stage performers Babak Ghassim and Usama Elyas.

In concluding his acceptance speech, Ashurov expressed hope that Kyrgyzstan’s tireless efforts would become “a shining example” to other countries.

“The difficult takes a little time,” he acknowledged, quoting Fridtjof Nansen. “The impossible takes a little longer.”

A Facebook Live stream of the ceremony will be available on the UNHCR Facebook page.

To find out more about how you can make a difference to the lives of people without citizenship, join UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness in 10 years.

Originally published on UNHCR on 07 October 2019