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Stateless in Dushanbe: a woman struggles to win back her citizenship

Telling the Human Story, 11 December 2009

© UNHCR/A.Hollmann
Women work in the fields in Tajikistan. Mukhabbat has been trying to gain Tajik nationality.

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, December 11 (UNHCR) Mukhabbat* carries around a thick wad of documents she has gathered over the last two years in a tireless effort to regain a nationality. "I can't remember how much it has cost, but I have spent a lot of time collecting these documents," said Mukhabbat, who recently approached UNHCR's office in Tajikistan to ask for help in finding a solution.

The problem that the 50-year-old faces, and tens of thousands of others left in legal limbo in Central Asia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been debated at a regional conference on statelessness this week in the Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat.

The European Union-funded conference, organized by UNHCR and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, followed a series of national workshops in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and seeks to galvanize a collective response to address gaps in laws and procedures.

Mukhabbat was born in northern Tajikistan's Sughd province in 1959, when the area was known as Leninabad and formed part of the Soviet Union. Her troubles began a year after independence in 1991, when she fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan after the 1992-1997 civil war erupted in Tajikistan.

She lived for 17 years in Uzbekistan, drifting in and out of an unhappy and childless marriage to an Uzbek citizen that finally ended in 2007. She decided to go back home and was shocked to discover that she had lost her Tajik citizenship and was stateless. Today, she lives at a friend's house in Dushanbe, collecting other people's cast-offs and rubbish to help her survive.

Mukhabbat had become a statistic one of an estimated 12 million stateless people around the world, including 40,000 documented stateless people in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. These people do not possess a nationality nor enjoy its legal benefits. This often leaves them unable to do the basic things most people take for granted, such as registering a birth, travelling, going to school, accessing health care, opening a bank account or owning property.

Among her pile of documents, Mukhabbat has a photocopy of her former Soviet passport dated 1983. She also has an expired certificate of statelessness from Uzbekistan, which was issued after her marriage in 1995 and shows her earlier attempts to acquire a valid identity document. She also shows a UNHCR visitor old school records from the state archives, which she hopes will bolster her case.

But she still lacks two crucial documents: written confirmation that she is not a citizen of Uzbekistan and a certificate showing that Uzbekistan was her last place of registered residence. Getting the written confirmation, or spravka, can take years and cost a lot of money

Asked how she ended up without a nationality, Mukhabbat said she knew that she needed to secure a new document to replace her Soviet passport, but the complexity of the process and her personal situation at the time made it difficult.

"I understood that when there was no more Soviet Union, I would need to get some kind of document. But when I left for Uzbekistan, there was no Tajik passport yet," she said, adding: "In Uzbekistan, I didn't really know what a passport was, what a residence permit was, what a stateless certificate was . . . there are just too many documents and it was difficult to understand."

Mukhabbat said that in 1995 or 1996, she heard that "there was some talk that people like me from Tajikistan might get Uzbek passports. But I wasn't able to get one because I was moving around at this stage; my husband kicked me out and I was living on trains, sleeping in railway stations and in cotton fields."

Ever since returning to Tajikistan, she has been shuttling between Uzbekistan and the land of her birth in search of a nationality. "I even went to the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan to ask for citizenship. I received a long list of documents and spravkas to submit, and I needed to pay money which I didn't have," she explained.

Without any nationality, she cannot get free medical help for her back problems. Nor can she live in the Dushanbe apartment that was issued to her by the textile factory where she worked as a young woman.

Two months ago, a frustrated Mukhabbat approached the UN office in Dushanbe for help and was referred to UNHCR, whose non-governmental organization partners are helping her to navigate the process, apply for documents and pay consular fees to the Uzbek Embassy for spravka applications.

Ghulam Shermamed, who works for UNHCR's legal aid partner, Society and Law, said Mukhabbat recently had an interview at the Uzbek Embassy and expects to receive her paperwork in about a month. Shermamed, a lawyer, said Mukhabbat checks on her application twice a week while he calls the embassy every day to check on the application for documents. "It is important that these people see that we are serious about it," he said.

Meanwhile, Mukhabbat faces the daily risk of being stopped and questioned by the authorities in her own homeland. "She can be stopped at any time for a document check, but she has none," said Shermamed, "She is not registered anywhere and staying without a document is considered a crime," he noted.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Ariane Rummery in Dushanbe, Tajikistan




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Ending Statelessness

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UN Conventions on Statelessness

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State Action on Statelessness

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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

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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

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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.

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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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