Statelessness: Living the South African dream on borrowed time

News Stories, 10 October 2011

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Undocumented and stateless, welder Jabulani Sibanda sits with pride in the car he has worked hard to buy, adamant that his status won't deter him from living as productively as possible.

MUSINA, South Africa, October 10 (UNHCR) At a glance, Jabulani Sibanda is living the South African dream. At 31, he is married with two beautiful children, and has a car, a house and his own business.

But Sibanda doesn't really own much of his life because he is stateless. Despite years of trying to obtain legal documents of his citizenship and residency status, he remains undocumented. Without them, he is resigned to living quietly and unobtrusively under the radar of officialdom.

"I always find myself back at square one," he said, shrugging at the repeated obstacles he faces. "I know no other life but one of being sent from pillar to post, begging and ingratiating myself into and out of situations. It is my life."

Sibanda's problems started when he was seven, when he and his mother crossed illegally from Zimbabwe into South Africa. She was of Malawian origin and lived in Zimbabwe and then in Musina in the north of South Africa. When her son was 15, she abandoned him with the family that had taken them in.

Despite childhood memories of living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Sibanda had no luck tracing a birth certificate through Zimbabwean authorities or obtaining proof that he is considered a Zimbabwean national. Without any documentation, Sibanda could not attend school in South Africa.

His case is not unique. It highlights an area of South African law that is not developed, said Rosalind Elphick, a lawyer working on the UNHCR Regional Statelessness Project with the agency's implementing partner in Musina, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).

Although the South African Citizenship Act of 1995 offers citizenship to children born in the country who would otherwise be stateless, no legislation exists to protect people who are stateless but who are not refugees.

The problem of statelessness is believed to affect thousands of people in South Africa.

Against the odds, Sibanda has survived by his wits and the kindness of friends and strangers. He taught himself as many of South Africa's 11 languages as possible, which allows him to blend in or extricate himself from legal situations.

But he has never left the only South African town he knows. "If I get arrested on my way to Johannesburg or any other place with no documentation, where will I end up?" he asked. "I would rather be safe than sorry."

At 17, he became an apprentice to a local welder in Musina. After three years in training, he became a self-employed welder. He married a South African woman and made sure that his children were registered at birth.

LHR is applying to the Ministry of Home Affairs to grant him permanent residence based on his good character, integration into South African society and self-sufficiency. His is seen as a test case that could set a precedent for other stateless people.

"He no longer has ties to Zimbabwe or Malawi. He lived in the former country as a minor and has never been to the latter," said LHR's Elphick. "He has lived most of his life in South Africa and is in this situation through no fault of his own."

"Without the correct documents I cannot buy anything in my name, so everything I own actually belongs to someone else," he said. "I must always be careful how I conduct myself because the wrong move could mean my property being taken away from me."

Despite his situation, Sibanda's business is doing well and he "owns" a second-hand car and property like many locals. To hold onto his property, he has trained himself to adapt to the whims and personalities of his many benefactors.

He added, "Life goes on. I'm not going to let this problem slow me down. I have a family to look after and I will do what I have to, to keep my family together."

By Pumla Rulashe in Musina, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

State Action on Statelessness

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

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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

Stateless People

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

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

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.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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