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Suffer the statelessness

Bihari woman, Bangladesh: Photo by Shafiur Rahman.

Bihari woman, Bangladesh: Photo by Shafiur Rahman.

Maureen Lynch of Refugees International writes about the twelve million people worldwide who are forced to live their lives without a nationality. While recent developments in Bangladesh and Kenya are encouraging, large groups of stateless people in the Dominican Republic, Syria, and Kuwait continue to live in limbo.

“We ask ourselves: Will our children have food tomorrow? Can they get education? Where will they get healthcare if they get sick? The answers to these questions should be simple in a very rich country like Kuwait, but, a Bidun has no guarantee of finding any answers.”

Questions like these haunt more than twelve million people worldwide. They are people who have no legal tie to any country. They are stateless. While there has been some progress in recent years, the campaign to solve this overlooked human rights problem is far from over. Meanwhile, lives are wasted and needless suffering continues.

Nationality is a fundamental human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace and security. Statelessness, or the lack of effective nationality, affects millions of men, women and children in all regions of the world. Being stateless means having no legal protection or right to participate in political processes; inadequate access to healthcare and education; poor employment prospects and poverty; little or no opportunity to own property; travel restrictions; social exclusion; vulnerability to trafficking; harassment and violence.

Common causes of statelessness include shifts in political power; reconfiguration of international borders; and differences in laws between countries that can leave someone without a nationality. Children of migrant workers who are not or can not be registered at birth may be at risk of statelessness.

Because states have the sovereign right to determine the procedures and conditions for acquisition and loss of citizenship, statelessness and disputed nationality must ultimately be resolved by governments. But, state determinations on citizenship must conform to general principles of international law. And when states do not act, it is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that has the official mandate to protect stateless persons.

Since 2004, Refugees International has visited over a dozen countries to assess the situation of people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. The organisation’s most recent report – Nationality rights for all: A progress report and global survey on statelessness – provides an updated global survey of statelessness in over eighty countries and assesses progress made since 2005 in protecting the human rights of stateless persons and in preventing and reducing statelessness.

It highlights cases of progress, like Bangladesh and Kenya, which illustrate how improvements can occur, but also the challenges remaining to achieve complete and lasting solutions to statelessness. These cases demonstrate the critical roles of political will (or the lack of it), international and national legal frameworks, liaison efforts by the UN and other agencies, as well as the initiative of stateless people themselves.

In Bangladesh, following legal precedent, most of the Urdu-speaking minority (also called Bihari or stranded Pakistanis) were recognised as citizens in a May 2008 high court judgement. Since 1971, at least 200,000 and as many as 500,000 people from this minority have lived in squalid urban slums, with limited access to healthcare, education and livelihoods. For thirty-seven years, neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan recognised them as citizens. As a first step towards integration, the high court ordered that willing adults be registered to vote and issued national identification cards.

In Kenya, around 100,000 Nubians have had less difficulty obtaining national identity cards, particularly since they filed lawsuits in 2003 and 2004 against the government in the Kenyan high court and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Gambia.

At the same time, large groups of stateless people in the Dominican Republic, Syria and Kuwait continue to live in limbo.

The number of stateless Dominico-Haitians is not known. According to the US State Department, approximately 650,000 Haitians live in bateyes – clusters of concrete barracks or wooden shacks near sugar cane plantations – without any documentation, sanitation, or healthcare. Because of their migrant status and darker skin complexion, many face discrimination and deportation. Although Article 11 of the constitution allows everyone born in the Dominican Republic to be a citizen, Haitian children are denied citizenship on the basis that they are falsely considered in transit, not having regularised their stay in the country. Children must be officially registered at the Haitian consulate in Santo Domingo, but most are probably not registered because their parents consider themselves Dominican. Parents often do not register their children because of lack of knowledge, economic resources, or documentation proving their Haitian citizenship.

In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that in preventing two children from obtaining their birth certificates, the Dominican Republic violated their right to nationality, the rights of the child, and the right to equal protection before the law. Since the court ruling, however, the situation has not improved, but has worsened.

Approximately 80,000 to 140,000 stateless Bidun reside in Kuwait. Most Bidun in Kuwait are descendants of Bedouin tribes that roamed freely across national borders in the region. Either because their ancestors failed to understand the importance of citizenship, because of illiteracy, or given their centuries-old nomadic way of life, they could not furnish sufficient proof that they were settled in any particular country. As a result, hundreds of thousands became stateless. The country’s 1959 Nationality Law defined Kuwaiti nationals as persons who were settled in Kuwait prior to 1920 and who maintained their normal residence there until the date of the publication of the law. Approximately one third of the population was recognised as full-fledged citizens. Another third was naturalised and granted partial citizenship rights. The remaining third was classified as bidun jinsiya, meaning without citizenship. The law has been amended fourteen times since and with almost every amendment has become more restrictive.

After 1985, Bidun were dismissed from their jobs, children were barred from public and private schools, and driving licenses were revoked. They could no longer carry passports unless they left the country and renounced the right to return. Following the liberation of the country from Iraqi occupation in 1991, they were fired en masse from positions in the military and police. Only a small fraction was rehired. Those dismissed could not collect severance pay unless they produced a passport, either Kuwaiti or foreign, or left the country. The Bidun can not petition the courts to have their citizenship claims adjudicated.

Citizenship in Kuwait is passed on to children through their fathers, not their mothers. Consequently, the children of a Kuwaiti woman and a Bidun husband are also Bidun. In theory a child of a divorced Kuwaiti woman or widow can acquire citizenship, creating an incentive for couples to divorce for the sake of their children’s future. However, individuals interviewed by Refugees International have said that they are still waiting on their cases.

Governments, the UN, stateless people, and each of us can take action to resolve statelessness. All states must respect human rights and facilitate acquisition of nationality for all individuals, and ensure that ethnic, religious and gender discrimination is eliminated from all nationality legislation. Countries should ensure that every child is registered at birth, whether born to married parents or not. Equal access to health care, education and employment must be given. The UN refugee agency must take concrete steps to fully live up to its mandate to help stateless persons.

Excuses for continuing to violate human rights are growing thin. One Nubian elder aptly advised other stateless groups to “use international organisations and international law to apply pressure on your government to implement the law. Tickle the minds of decision-makers.” Bolder and more creative efforts to uphold nationality rights for all – a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace and security – must be identified and relentlessly pursued.

Ensuring nationality rights for all is a war that can be waged and won.♦

Maureen Lynch is Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives, Refugees International. For more on the campaign to end statelessness, see:


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