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

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.

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

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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

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

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.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

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