UNHCR welcomes UAE decision on stateless people

Briefing Notes, 23 September 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 23 September 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR welcomes a decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to resolve the situation of thousands of stateless people. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Interior announced the launch of a two-month campaign for the registration of the country's stateless population referred to as the Bidoon and the establishment of four registration centres in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. At the registration centres, applicants fill out detailed forms explaining why they should be granted the UAE nationality. The authorities will make a final decision about naturalization and granting citizenship after extensive scrutiny of the application. The registration centres will continue to accept applications for registration till the end of October.

We are encouraged to see the high level of interest among the stateless population as shown by the number of application forms distributed in the first day of registration and the media awareness campaign carried by the government of the UAE to encourage registration. We also welcome the statements of the country's leadership who have expressed UAE's commitment to resolve the problem of statelessness. UNHCR is keen to see a positive outcome for this process. We have recommended additional steps to address statelessness and encourage a process that meets international standards. We hope that a successful resolution of this issue in the UAE will encourage other countries in the region to follow suit in addressing the problem of statelessness.

There are thousands of stateless people living in different parts of the Middle East. When state boundaries were established and the Gulf states were formed, some countries used tribal affiliations rather than borders to determine citizenship. As a result, thousands of people were left out and ended up without the nationality of any state. Without nationality, stateless people in are often unable to travel or gain access to the full range of public services, including education, that are available to citizens. Children of stateless people are also born stateless.

In 2006, the government issued directives aimed at finding solutions for 10,000 registered stateless people, resulting in the naturalization of a first group of close to 1,300 people.

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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.

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Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

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Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

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