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Kyrgz rights lawyer to be honoured at Nansen Refugee Award ceremony

Nansen refugee award winner talks to a UNHCR representative while sitting on grass

Nansen Refugee Award 2019 laureate Azizbek Ashurov talks to British broadcaster Anita Rani. © UNHCR/Chris de Bode

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

A lawyer who has spent over a decade championing the rights of more than 10,000 stateless people in the Kyrgyz Republic is to receive the prestigious 2019 Nansen Refugee Award at a ceremony in Geneva tonight.


Azizbek Ashurov was chosen for his outstanding 16-year commitment to ending statelessness in Kyrgyzstan, ensuring that those left without papers by the break-up of the Soviet Union finally have citizenship.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who will present the award in Geneva’s spectacular Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, has described Ashurov’s story as “one of great personal resolve and tenacity.”

“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,” says Grandi.

“We never had time to even think about what motivates us.”

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

A team of lawyers worked tirelessly, juggling up to 10 cases per day. Together, they scoured the Central Asian country, even taking to horseback to reach the most out-of-the-way communities to find people living 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.

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.

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.

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.

“We never had time to even think about what motivates us,” recalls Ashurov, who seldom made it home in time to put his children to bed.

Ashurov and his team are now working to help other Central Asian countries reduce statelessness. Together, they have helped to set up a network to share information and bring civil society and governments together.

Tonight’s event will be hosted by award-winning South African TV presenter Leanne Manas.

It will feature a performance by Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean and a keynote address by Nadine Labaki, the Lebanese director of the Oscar-nominated film, Capernaum. Other performers joining them will be Swiss musician Flèche Love and German poets and stage performers Babak Ghassim and Usama Elyas.

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

Originally published on UNHCR on 07 October 2019