Stateless former Cambodians caught in Kafkaesque web in Viet Nam

News Stories, 30 October 2006

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Stateless former refugee Su Mai, who says he is 100 years old, with his 80-year-old daughter (center) and 60-year-old grand-daughter (right), wants to acquire Vietnamese citizenship so he can get a passport and travel legally.

CU CHI, Viet Nam, October 30 (UNHCR) Forced to flee Pol Pot's Cambodia in 1975 when he was just 16, Sopha Lay Demontero spent just one-third of his life in his homeland.

For all of his adult life, although he has enjoyed safety and a good livelihood in neighbouring Viet Nam, he has been caught in a Kafkaesque legal limbo, stateless and unable to do almost anything citizens of states around the world take for granted.

Now 47, he couldn't register his marriage or the birth of his two children. As children, they had no access to free health care. They couldn't study at public schools and now they can't legally work because they don't have the all-important state-issued identity card.

"We have many difficulties," says Demontero. "I can't even buy a motorbike, which is a very small thing. It's normal for transportation but I can't buy one. I had to buy it in the name of my wife," who is a Vietnamese citizen.

Demontero is one of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who sought refuge in Viet Nam in the 1970s when the brutal Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot occupied the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and turned the clock back to "Year Zero."

By the early 1990s, most had been resettled to third countries, or had gone home. But some 9,500 people including many Cambodians of Chinese ancestry were disowned by Cambodia and were unable to return. In the chaos of being chased to the fields by the Khmer Rouge, these refugees, who today live in the countryside around Ho Chi Minh City, lost their papers and were unable to prove they were Cambodian citizens.

After more than two decades during which they learned fluent Vietnamese, intermarried and raised seamlessly-integrated families in Viet Nam, most fervently want to become Vietnamese citizens. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is working together with the Vietnamese government to try to end their plight.

"It's innumerable difficulties we are facing since we came to Viet Nam," says Demontero, whose unusual last name testifies to ancestors who were Portuguese missionaries to Cambodia in the 18th century.

In an effort to regularize his status, Demontero says the Immigration Department recently issued him a temporary resident's card. But the unfamiliar document just draws laughs when he tries to use it in place of an ID card.

"Everybody looks at it and says it's not valid," says Demontero, who supports his family by raising cows. Even his efforts to improve his livelihood have been stymied by his non-status.

He'd like more than the 10 cows he now has. "But if I want to expand my activities," he says, "I have to borrow money from the bank, and I can't. Other people can, but I cannot."

Many of these stateless people live in extreme poverty, and a UNHCR report this year concluded that "until this group is able to access Vietnamese citizenship, the legal structure through which they might be able to improve their lives will remain inaccessible."

Demontero, a Christian lay leader of his community, has a warm smile, but frustration and weariness creep into his voice as admits to emotional distress as well as practical difficulties.

"It's a very sad feeling," he says simply. "For example, when I see my children compared to children of my Vietnamese neighbours, who have easier access to university, easier access to work. Why do my children have different treatment?"

It is a question that also frustrates Hasim Utkan, UNHCR's Regional Representative in Bangkok. "When I joined UNHCR 28 years ago, the first thing I did was deal with this group," he says. "Next year I am retiring and their problems have still not been solved."

A requirement of acquiring Vietnamese citizenship is renouncing Cambodian citizenship. But here the refugees are caught in a Catch-22: the Cambodian government doesn't even consider them citizens, so they can't renounce a citizenship they can't prove they have.

Even if Cambodia would have him, Demontero has no desire to live there. "I have no relatives or property in Cambodia," he explains. "Our family all speak Vietnamese, I have a Vietnamese wife, my children speak Vietnamese and cannot speak Cambodian (Khmer). How could I go back to Cambodia?"

UNHCR has proposed convening three-way discussions with the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments to find a one-off solution for this stateless group.

Today Demontero, his wife and unemployed 20-year-old daughter live in a UNHCR-built house in a settlement where a refugee camp stood until 1994. It's in Cu Chi, a place better known to tourists for the elaborate system of tunnels that the Viet Cong used to evade the U.S. Army in what the Vietnamese call the American War and the Americans call the Viet Nam War.

Down the road from Demontero live three generations of stateless people Su Mai, who says he is 100, his 80-year-old daughter Su Li Wa, and his 60-year-old grand-daughter, Ngo Kien.

As a ginger tabby cat grooms itself at their feet, the three sit on a bamboo bench on their verandah and tell of the difficulties of their situation. Ngo Kien has worked as a casual labourer, but her mother says it has always been difficult to earn a good living without an ID book, the passkey to legal employment.

"If we had Vietnamese nationality, life would be easier," says Su Li Wa, the spokeswoman for the three generations. "I always think I am Vietnamese because I am living here in Viet Nam. Now that we have become old, we want Vietnamese citizenship."

Despite being 100, Su Mai still has a case of wanderlust; earlier this year he returned to Cambodia to attend a family wedding, sneaking across the border. The main reason he wants Vietnamese citizenship, he says, is to get a passport so he could travel abroad legally.

Like all the stateless former Cambodian refugees, he's painfully aware that he's not getting any younger. As his neighbour Demontero says: "We have been waiting (for Vietnamese citizenship) for 31 years. It's too long already."

By Kitty McKinsey in Cu Chi, Viet Nam




UNHCR country pages

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Stateless People

A tough task determining the true number of stateless people

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Stateless in Beirut

Since Lebanon was established as a country in the 1920s there has been a long-standing stateless population in the country.

There are three main causes for this: the exclusion of certain persons from the latest national census of 1932; legal gaps which deny nationality to some group of individuals; and administrative hurdles that prevent parents from providing proof of the right to citizenship of their newborn children.

Furthermore, a major reason why this situation continues is that under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, only men can; meaning a child with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother will inherit their father's statelessness.

Although exact numbers are not known, it is generally accepted that many thousands of people lack a recognized nationality in Lebanon and the problem is growing due to the conflict in Syria. Over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict and with over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country this number will increase.

Registering a birth in Lebanon is very complicated and for Syrian parents can include up to five separate administrative steps, including direct contact with the Syrian government. As the first step in establishing a legal identity, failure to properly register a child's birth puts him or her at risk of statelessness and could prevent them travelling with their parents back to Syria one day.

The consequences of being stateless are devastating. Stateless people cannot obtain official identity documents, marriages are not registered and can pass their statelessness on to their children Stateless people are denied access to public healthcare facilities at the same conditions as Lebanese nationals and are unable to own or to inherit property. Without documents they are unable to legally take jobs in public administrations and benefit from social security.

Children can be prevented from enrolling in public schools and are excluded from state exams. Even when they can afford a private education, they are often unable to obtain official certification.

Stateless people are not entitled to passports so cannot travel abroad. Even movement within Lebanon is curtailed, as without documents they risk being detained for being in the country unlawfully. They also do not enjoy basic political rights as voting or running for public office.

This is the story of Walid Sheikhmouss Hussein and his family from Beirut.

Stateless in Beirut

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