Shadows of themselves: Portraits of statelessness

There are thought to be 10 million stateless people around the world. Here are some of their stories.

    Like many descendants of Bedouins or Bidoons, Mona Kareem and her family are stateless [Mona Kareem/Al Jazeera]
    Like many descendants of Bedouins or Bidoons, Mona Kareem and her family are stateless [Mona Kareem/Al Jazeera]

    Mona Kareem is a long way from home, and perhaps even further from ever being able to return. The 27-year-old last saw her family in Kuwait in the summer of 2011, just before travelling to the United States on a special alien passport. That passport has since been cancelled for "security reasons", and the only identity she holds on to is one no country is willing to accept.

    Kareem and her family are Bidoons, an Arabic term meaning "without nationality" or stateless. Many like her are descendants of the nomadic Bedouin tribes, who roamed for centuries across lands that are now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

    After Kuwait's independence in 1961, these tribes were in legal limbo - several did not apply for citizenship, either not realising how important it would become or not knowing how to file the application.

    Kareem says that her family filed for citizenship but never heard back from government officials. Over the course of about 20 years, Kareem's family and other nomadic tribes went from enjoying most of the rights of Kuwaiti citizens to being stripped of basic necessities because of their heritage.

    "I grew up with no rights," Kareem says. "No access to proper education, healthcare, employment, or even the court system." As a vocal critic of how Kuwait treats Bidoons like herself, she believes her alien passport was cancelled because of her activism.

    'Legal ghosts' 

    Kareem's story and variations of it reverberate among an estimated 10 million people around the world who are considered stateless by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. They live in developed and developing countries, though their exact numbers are not known.

    According to Refugees International, an international group working on assisting and protecting displaced people, an estimated 4,000 of them live in the US today. They are from Kuwait, Myanmar, the former Soviet Union, and the former Yugoslavia, among other places.

    Legally, however, they don't belong anywhere, because no country claims them as citizens. Some ended up stateless after their nations disintegrated; others were stripped of their rights because of ethnic, racial, gender, or religious discrimination in their home countries.

    "We have IDs that are visibly different from others, different colours and sizes so people can tell immediately that we're not citizens," Kareem says. "I had to deal with full-blown racism in college, and others like me often experience harassment and humiliation at the hands of police."

    International law defines a stateless person as someone "who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of law".

    And numerous events over the past century - the disintegration of the Soviet Union, wars in the Middle East - have created a growing number of what are sometimes called "legal ghosts" or "citizens of nowhere".

    Without nationality, a person is stripped of the basic rights and duties citizens usually enjoy. According to researchers at the Statelessness Programme at Tilburg Law School, in the Netherlands, the absence of nationality almost always amounts to violations of international human rights law.

    Their report states that statelessness cannot be seen or addressed in isolation as it affects - and is affected by - other issues, such as human rights, denial of access to healthcare, education and political rights such as voting.

    'We no longer exist'

    Thirty-three-year-old Natalia Kowal had moved to the United States from Kazakhstan in 1995 and didn't know she was stateless until she was detained in the US [Greg Kowal/Al Jazeera]

    Natalia Kowal, 33, didn't know she and her family were stateless until they were detained in the US with an order of deportation in 2009. They had moved there from Kazakhstan in 1995, in search of a better future after the Soviet Union broke up.

    "My mother didn't want to see us grow up where we were. You don't realise the unfortunate circumstances you live in until you have been removed and shown something better," she says.

    Kowal's father applied for political asylum for his family in the US because of the religious and ethnic persecution they faced in Kazakhstan. According to Kowal, her family - and many other Christian families living in the newly independent country - frequently faced persecution.

    "Robberies would take place only in homes of Russians, and Kazakh families wouldn't be touched. Some people's homes were burglarised regularly whereas neighbours were never robbed. If you were a girl, you couldn't go out past dark because someone would either rape you or kidnap you. Even in police work, there was favouritism in how cases would be resolved," Kowal says.

    Their petition for political asylum was denied, however.

    Kowal's mother brought her and her sister - travelling on their mother's passport as they didn't have ones of their own - to the US on a tourist visa instead. It was valid for three months. But the family remained in the country after their visa had expired, hoping that their political asylum petition would one day be accepted.

    In the meantime, they got on with their lives: the parents worked, the sisters graduated from college, Kowal got married.

    Then, on October 23, 2009, their lives changed dramatically. 

    "People from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up at my house in Queens," Kowal recalls. "They had bullet-proof vests and guns and flashlights.

    "But the moment they walked in, they were really courteous. And you could tell from their faces that they felt so silly that they had to come into a home. My husband, a US citizen, scrambled out of bed and asked them for a warrant. I wasn't ready for it but I knew this was going to happen. I had no idea where I was going to end up. I just gave him a kiss and told him that it was going to be OK. In my heart, I was like I didn't really know," she says, beginning to cry.

    After they walked Kowal out of her apartment, they handcuffed her and led her to an armoured truck.

    "My sister and my mum were inside the truck," she says. "My dad was being carried in a separate car." 

    Kowal's father was put in jail for 75 days for violating the order of deportation.

    "My sister and I were put in a supervision programme called ISAP, under which we had to report every week," she says.

    Kowal and her family had to prove that they were collecting all the information required in order to leave the country. The final step in the process was to obtain a passport from their country of origin, and leave.

    Natalia with her sister. 'We were put in a supervision programme called ISAP under which we had to report every week' [Margorzata Kowal/Al Jazeera]

    "While collecting the documentation for this case, we found out we were stateless," Kowal says.

    "At the Kazakh consulate, we were told there was a law they had passed after we left the country, which stated that if you were out of the country for longer than three years without the consulate supervision, you forfeited your citizenship. So even though I was born there, I forfeited my citizenship because I hadn't announced where I went."

    Kowal's parents, who were born in Chechnya, decided to search for a solution through the Russian consulate, hoping to get a passport from there.

    "The archives in which information about my parents' birth was stored no longer existed - which meant my parents no longer existed. There was no documentation available other than the birth certificates of my grandparents. So now they are not citizens of Russia, nor of Kazakhstan," she says.

    "Technically, we could have known about our situation sooner if we had proper representation but we didn't because we hid from it. The fear of deportation forced us into not asking the questions we should have been asking." 

    The alien passport

    The break-up of the Soviet Union also left 34-year-old Alex Shilov stateless.

    Born in Estonia in 1981, Shilov moved to the US in 1999 on a special or alien Estonian passport. Estonian law doesn't grant citizenship automatically, unless a person is born there after 1991.

    "Anything before that you would have to prove that your parents are Estonians or pass language requirements. At that time it didn't really bother me. I didn't really care because I felt that it was my country so I never applied for it," Shilov says, adding: "I was 17 years old and I wasn't an immigration expert or anything at the time. I never thought I would have a difficult time or no chance of going back. I see it now, but then it was different."

    He arrived in the US on his grey alien passport, which is visibly different from the regular blue Estonian one. Shilov's residency permit in Estonia was due to expire shortly after his arrival in the US. But he didn't think it would be a huge problem if he put off renewing it for a while.

    "I never thought I would have to apply to go to the place where I was born, and lived for 16 or 17 years," he says.

    But when he tried to renew it just a few months later, he received a letter informing him that his residency permit was now invalid. Despite his repeated requests to extend his permanent residency, the Estonian embassy denied his appeals.

    Shilov is a registered nurse in Brooklyn, trying to make ends meet for his fiancé and their baby. As he watches his daughter crawl around their apartment, he can't help but wonder what the future holds.

    "I want to give her the world, but my hands are tied," he says. "Every day is one filled with uncertainty and heaviness. That is how it feels to be stateless."

    Stateless children

    Afghan children displaced from Faryab, Badghis and Ghor province [Jalil Rezayee/EPA]

    The UNHCR estimates that more than a third of the world's stateless people are children. A stateless child is born every 10 minutes in Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Nepal, Latvia and the Dominican Republic. 

    These five countries account for more than half of the world's known stateless population, and do not provide legal safeguards to prevent children from becoming stateless.

    Twenty-seven countriesdo not allow women to pass on their nationality to their children, thereby creating generations of stateless people.

    Syria's nationality laws and the ongoing civil war there have produced one of the largest populations of stateless children. More than 50,000 children have been born to Syrian refugee parents in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt since the conflict began. 

    And as the war has left many fathers dead or separated from their families, the fact that mothers cannot pass on their nationality to their children is leaving many of them stateless. 

    Those who are entitled to Syrian nationality but have not had their births registered - a particularly difficult process for refugees, especially if they have lost documents while fleeing their country - may later find it difficult to prove their entitlement. 

    And without identity documents, children cannot access healthcare or education.

    Furthermore, children without papers proving their age may be put at greater risk of early marriage, child labour, recruitment by armed forces and being trafficked. 

    "We already have very high levels of child marriage and child labour in the region, and we are introducing on top of this a generation of unpapered children who have no proof of status or age," says Amit Sen, a regional protection officer for the UNHCR.

    Ending statelessness

    Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, informs the media about the launch of UNHCR's global Statelessness Campaign [EPA]

    In 1954, the United Nations introduced the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and, in 1961, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

    So far, 80 countries have acceded to the 1954 convention, while 55 are parties to the 1961 convention. The US, Russia, India and China, however, are among those countries that have not yet committed to either. 

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    Last year, the UNHCR launched the #ibelong campaign aimed at ending statelessness within the next decade. 

    And that is, the agency believes, an achievable goal. It says that since 2003, more than four million stateless people around the world have acquired nationality.  

    Now the UN body is looking for support from states by asking them to take several key actions that could potentially end statelessness. These include ensuring that every birth is registered, thereby helping to establish legal proof of parentage. They also aim to: ensure that all children are granted nationality if they would otherwise be stateless; to remove gender discrimination from nationality laws, so women may be able to pass their nationality to their children; and to resolve current statelessness issues through changes in government policy and to eliminate discrimination because of race, ethnicity, gender or disability. 

    "Ending decades of social injustice ingrained in the everyday life will not be easy but it is simply the right thing to do," Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said. "Stateless people almost always have strong ties to one country or another. With political will and our combined efforts, those ties between people and states can be recognised," he added.

    Some countries have already introduced significant safeguards to tackle statelessness. Brazil reformed its constitution in 2007 to make it easier for children born abroad to Brazilian citizens to acquire nationality. In 2006, Indonesia amended its nationality law for those of its citizens living abroad for a long duration of time, so that they would not lose citizenship.

    In 2010, Namgyal Dolkar became the first Tibetan to be granted Indian citizenship after arguing her case under the Indian Citizenship Act. Dolkar was born in India but, like many Tibetans, was legally stateless, with no citizenship. The landmark ruling has meant that thousands of Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1986 will be granted Indian citizenship. However, the ruling still leaves many Tibetans stateless in India - some because of legal ambiguities, while others choose to remain stateless.

    "It is important for us to maintain our legal position because it contributes to our movement, being true to who we are, getting freedom and having a separate state," says Tashi Wangmo, a Tibetan, born and raised in India.

    Wangmo's parents opted not to take up Indian citizenship - a move that they and several Tibetans considered to be a political statement. Wangmo, who isn't as passionate about the cause as her parents, says she wishes she could get Indian citizenship, because of the obstacles she faces almost daily.

    "I was trying to open a bank account while I was studying in the UK and it was so frustrating because they didn't understand my paperwork," she says. "I had to tell them ... I'm not an illegal person in this country. I have documents, I have money, so what's the issue? That's what really bothered me. People think you can buy everything with money but that's not true. I had the money. What I don't have is citizenship - and that's the bigger issue."

    Wangmo is among a number of Tibetans who do not benefit from India's Citizenship Act because she was born in 1991, years after the cut-off point. 

    Thousands at risk 

    People protest in Miami in July 2015, against Haitians and Dominicans becoming stateless under a Dominican Republic crackdown on undocumented immigrants [AP]

    In November 2014, the UNHCR launched an initiative to end statelessness in the Americas. Less than three months later, in February, thousands of Dominicans became stateless overnight as a deadline for people born to undocumented parents to apply for migrant permits expired. Most of those affected were the descendants of Haitian migrants.

    "The Dominican Republic doesn't recognise them even if they are born and raised there because of their Haitian descent. And Haiti doesn't recognise them because they were not born there," says Laura Bingham, a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative.

    Out of an estimated 110,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent that could have secured citizenship in their birth country, Dominican government figures show that only 5,345 had applied to normalise their status as of January 9.

    "This could leave thousands at risk of possible expulsion from the country," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty America's director, said in a press release.

    "The simple fact is that when the vast majority of these people were born, the Dominican law at the time recognised them as citizens. Stripping them of this right, and then creating impossible administrative hurdles to stay in the country, is a violation of their human rights."

    'Why can't I have a normal life?'

    The US is also host to a large number of stateless people, some of whom became stateless within the country and are unable to change their status because of legal and administrative hurdles. "The United States does not produce stateless people," says Bingham. "But there are stateless people who come here with some kind of status and are rendered stateless while here," she says.

    Open Society estimates that there are 4,000 to 10,000 stateless people in the US although the exact number is not known. "People focus on the numbers and that is an issue," she says. "The 'I don't know' answer is loaded because it means the state is not taking responsibility to identify these people."

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    Without an effective framework in place to deal with stateless people living in the country, and, in most cases, without documents issued to them, the result is a large number of individuals and families in limbo. 

    "The prevailing attitude is that the US constitution, the Bill of Rights, and American laws are enough to deal with all humanitarian and political issues," says Julia Harrington Reddy, a senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative. "Statelessness still has a low profile as a human rights issue. It is mostly of concern to Washington because it is linked with other political issues."

    Some stateless people living in the US say finding a solution to the problem should not be as challenging as it is often perceived to be.

    "It's tough," Alex Shilov sighs. "I just want to have a normal life. Pay taxes, have a family life. I'm not a terrorist or a threat. Why can't I have a normal life?"

    Shilov says there must be special clauses for the stateless in the US, particularly those complying with the law.

    "If a person is not providing an obstacle to his deportation and he's not lying to immigration, there should be some sort of relief in the future," he says. "The judges should see the human side of the situation, not just rubber-stamped answers. There has to be some way out of it for law-abiding people like me who are living with these circumstances." 

    "For quite some time, the US has seen statelessness as a foreign issue, a problem found only outside the US," says Reddy. "If someone were coming from another country, we would deport him or her. But Washington is now realising that stateless people have nowhere to be deported to, and so they're starting to pay attention."

    The stalled US immigration reform bill includes a provision allowing stateless people to apply for conditional legal status, which could eventually be converted into permanent residency and citizenship.

    "That move reflects a heightened awareness regarding statelessness in Washington," says Reddy.

    The US, however, is still not a signatory to two UN conventions on the reduction of statelessness - which 66 countries have acceded to. These agreements provide an internationally recognised framework for countries to move stateless residents so they can establish citizenship. The UNHCR is pushing for US immigration authorities to create special procedures to help stateless people to obtain citizenship, which is separate from the existing asylum system.

    Even if Washington does reach that point and finds a way to better address stateless people living in the US, some of those affected say that moment in time is bound to be bittersweet.

    "They could come up to me right now and be like, 'Here's your green card' and 'Yay, aren't you so excited? I'll be like, yeah, I am so excited but I'm so sad that I wasted the last two decades fighting for something that shouldn't have been taken away from me to begin with. So it will be a kind of sad celebration," says Natalia Kowal. "I wish we could all be in a situation where no one has to explain themselves."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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