From stateless to state official, Ivorian helps others gain nationality

Telling the Human Story, 23 December 2013

© UNHCR/K.Mahoney
Many children in Côte d'Ivoire do not have birth certificates due to the conflict surrounding the 2010 elections. This could soon change as the government takes steps to resolve the problem of statelessness.

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Côte d'Ivoire (UNHCR) For most of his life, elected official Bere Tassoumane had trouble proving his existence. In his native Côte d'Ivoire, his name did not figure on civil registries, and he could not get any type of identity card.

As a result, he could not enroll in school, purchase land or even apply for a job. For nearly 30 years, he was a man without the protection of any country. He was a living ghost.

It was not until his early teenage years that Bere recognized he had a serious problem. After years of being teased at school for not being "Ivorian", he discovered he could not enroll in high school because he lacked the documentation required to take entry exams. He went to try his luck in neighbouring Burkina Faso, the land of his ancestors.

"I went to high school in Burkina Faso because I couldn't enroll in my country, Côte d'Ivoire," Bere explained. "I paid 10,000 francs (US$20) to register because I was considered a foreigner. Nationals pay half the price."

Bere had hoped he would feel more welcome in his grandparents' homeland but this was not the case. "In one dialect in Burkina Faso there is a word 'Paweogo' which means 'someone with no roots'," said Bere. "That is what they called me there. They made fun of me. You don't feel well in your own skin, you feel like a nobody."

Bere was born in a village near Bouafflé, a town in the middle of Côte d'Ivoire. So were his parents. Some 70 years ago, his grandparents joined a massive wave of immigrants from Upper Volta now Burkina Faso who came to work in the cacao and coffee fields.

Back then, before the eight French colonies in West Africa gained independence in the 1960s, both Côte d'Ivoire and Upper Volta were considered one territory under French administration. For Bere's grandparents, the move to Bouafflé was simply an internal move inside one large, colonial territory.

Seven years before Bere's birth, Côte d'Ivoire celebrated its own birthday in 1960. At the dawn of independence, the nation's founders drafted the first-ever Ivorian Nationality code law which provided a vague definition of who would be considered an Ivorian citizen. It did not grant Ivorian nationality to children whose only link was birth on the territory of Côte d'Ivoire. Consequently, a large portion of the population was left devoid of a clearly determined nationality, leaving hundreds of thousands of migrants like Bere's ancestors stateless.

This legal limbo lasted for many generations. Things only began to change in 1996 when the Ivorian government issued a decree listing the names of thousands of people, to ensure those in limbo would finally be recognized as citizens of Côte d'Ivoire. For Bere, it was a new beginning as his name was listed on page 152 of the decree.

Upon gaining citizenship in his 30s, Bere began to exercise the rights his new legal status afforded him. He got an identity card, and voted for the first time. But change did not happen overnight and despite having proof of his nationality, he still encountered challenges.

"They accused me of getting my ID card fraudulently," he said, they referring to other Ivorians who were suspicious of his Burkinabe roots. "I was arrested and handed over to the police as a fraudster."

In those early years after the decree, many formerly stateless people like Bere who were treated with suspicion and suffered discrimination found themselves traveling around Côte d'Ivoire with a hardcopy of the hefty decree document.

Inspired by his newfound rights, Bere did not stop. He ran for public office and won. He was democratically elected by the Ivorian people to represent them as Municipal Counsel in the mayor's office of Bouafflé. Five more of Bere's formerly stateless friends have also won local elections. One is a TV journalist. He does not see why one of them could not become mayor one day.

Using the little spare time he has, Bere volunteers by traveling around and helping people to take the administrative steps necessary to get documented and ensure they have the protection of the state.

"We tell our people to go to the state and to declare themselves," said Bere. "We are working for the well-being of our community out of love because we ourselves were marginalized."

In October 2013, Côte d'Ivoire acceded to the two international conventions on statelessness the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These accessions are part of a range of measures being taken by the Ivorian government to address the mass statelessness situation in the country. Other measures include a recent reform of the nationality law and review of the cases of people whose nationality is unclear.

But for legal expert Marie-Josée Baba, it's one thing to enact a law, another to enforce it.

"We have a lot of work to do when it comes to changing people's minds," said Baba, who has been working on a joint statelessness project with the Ivorian Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Public Freedoms to help people like Bere resolve documentation and nationality issues and to make sure local governments are implementing the law.

UNHCR has been working alongside its Ivorian governmental partners to ensure the nation lives up to its obligations to prevent statelessness. For the past few years, the UN refugee agency has been strongly advocating for this accession to the statelessness conventions.

"Côte d'Ivoire is a country that has the willingness to protect stateless people within its borders and has made tremendous progress over the years," said Ann Encontre, UNHCR's Representative in Côte d'Ivoire. "The country plays a strong part in the region and we are hopeful that other neighbouring countries will follow their lead and sign the statelessness conventions as well."

Encontre recognizes that much work remains to be done to reduce the number of stateless in Côte d'Ivoire to zero. But with formerly stateless people like Bere now represented in the government, things are looking up.

"We don't want this generation to have the problems that we had," said Bere. "We want people to participate in all levels of society, economic, social and political so that we can all benefit from the evolution of our country."

By Kathryn Mahoney in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire

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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

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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.

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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.

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