Community Paralegals and the Legal Empowerment Approach to Statelessness

Mohammad Javed is an Urdu-speaking entrepreneur living in the middle of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Looking to grow his business, Mohammad decided to travel to India to start importing spare auto-rickshaw parts for his own repairs and to sell to others. Yet Mohammad was unsure of the process through which he could obtain a passport. He was also intimidated to approach the passport authority office. While a landmark 2008 High Court judgment confirmed Urdu-speakers’ Bangladeshi citizenship and ended their 40 year struggle with statelessness, Mohammad had heard stories of fellow Urdu-speakers being denied passports due to their identity and residence in urban “camps” established by the ICRC after Bangladesh became independent in 1971.

A continent away, Yusuf is a 19-year-old of Nubian ethnicity living in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Yusuf wanted a birth certificate to access basic services and to reinforce his identity as a Kenyan citizen. For three months, he tried to apply for a birth certificate on his own. He repeatedly went to the relevant government office, which required a trip into town, but each attempt to apply was met with harsh treatment and requests for additional supporting documents beyond those required of most Kenyans. After many failed attempts, Yusuf gave up on getting a birth certificate.

Both Mohammad and Yusuf belong to minority groups that are either emerging from a protracted situation of statelessness or are at risk of statelessness due to difficulties in acquiring legal identity documents like ID cards and passports.  Despite laws and court decisions that establish their citizenship rights, lack of legal knowledge, complex application procedures, and a lack of proper implementation of the law – sometimes outright discrimination – all stand in the way.

How, then, can Mohammad, Yusuf, and the millions of others like them around the world protect their rights as citizens – obtaining legal identity documents that allow them to prove their nationality, obtain employment, travel abroad, open a bank account, or enroll in school?

Community-based paralegals, also known as grassroots legal advocates, can bridge the gap between law and real life. They use knowledge of law and government, and skills like mediation, education, organizing, and advocacy to seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice. Paralegals not only work alongside clients to resolve a legal issue, but also focus on empowerment –  leaving each client in a stronger position to deal with similar problems in the future.

Namati, an international legal empowerment organization, is dedicated to the paralegal approach. Since 2013, Namati has been working with Nubian Rights Forum and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) in Kenya and with the Council of Minorities in Bangladesh to train and support paralegals in communities emerging from or at risk of statelessness.

The Nubian paralegals in Kenya and the Urdu-speaking paralegals in Bangladesh start by educating their communities about the importance of legal identity documents, the eligibility requirements and application processes.

Some people use that information to apply on their own. Others require additional assistance – help with forms, or a paralegal to accompany them to the registration office.  Sometimes the paralegal’s presence alone will make an official think twice before making extra-legal requests. And when an official delays or denies a client’s application for an identity document, the paralegal is there to use the law in negotiations and follow the case through to a resolution.

In the past 18 months, Nubian Rights Forum paralegals have opened over 1,200 cases and several hundred clients have already received their identity documents. In Bangladesh, more than 1,400 Urdu-speaking clients have received identity documents in just one year.

Yet the paralegals supported by Namati and its partners are not only concerned with assisting individual clients. The paralegals are tracking every case to establish an evidence base on how laws are implemented. By analyzing hundreds of cases, the data can be used for high-level advocacy.  Improvements to the law and practice can create change not only for Kenyan Nubians or Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis, but potentially ease access to legal identity documents to all citizens in these two countries.

And as this model of citizenship-focused paralegal services develops, practical resources and lessons will be shared with like-minded organizations, illustrating how community-based justice services can respond to or prevent statelessness around the globe.

This Post originally appeared on the Stelessness Blog run by the University of Tilburg’s Statelessness Program. Laura Goodwin, is a Program Director at Namati and manages Namati’s Burma Program and Citizenship Program, which is active in Bangladesh and Kenya. 

January 13, 2015 | Laura Goodwin