Statelessness: Hoping to acquire a nationality and put down roots

News Stories, 1 September 2014

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Railya Abulkhanova is an ethnic Tatar who was born Kazakhstan. She now lives in France and hopes that she will gain citizenship soon. She will address a global forum on statelessness in the Netherlands.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 1 (UNHCR) Three years ago, Railya Abulkhanova told a UNHCR film crew that she felt like a tumbleweed. "It rolls . . . with the breeze it rolls away. That is what it is. That is statelessness," she said in the story-telling series interview. "And me; I want to put down roots," Railya added.

Like many other stateless people around the world, including thousands from former Soviet republics, she's still waiting. Without a nationality, stateless people find it difficult to access the services and rights enjoyed by citizens. But for the first time in many years, and after several failed attempts, Railya hopes she is close to getting a nationality.

At the time of the 2011 interview, Railya, an ethnic Tatar, was living in France after being registered as a stateless person. She was born in Kazakhstan when it was a Soviet Republic, and in 1990 went to university in the Russian city of Ufa at the age of 17. She was a Soviet citizen with a passport, but the young woman lived in Russia on a temporary residency permit, known as a propiska.

Life seemed good, but in 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated and Railya and tens of thousands of other people fell through the cracks as newly independent states like Kazakhstan passed their own nationality legislation. "Our minds just could not process the information that the [Soviet] Union had broken up. No one believed that it could happen," Railya told UNHCR recently in a phone call from France.

She moved in 1995 to study in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic, where she worked as a teacher and completed a PhD in philology. In 2005, she applied for naturalization, hoping that her status as a university professor with several publications to her name, would ease the process ¬- she was wrong.

But Railya is grateful to France, where she moved to in 2009 after marrying a French citizen. She was granted formal status as a stateless person, giving her some measure of assistance. Railya told UNHCR that getting this status had given her "a certain confidence . . . some sort of certainty of my situation, as well as theoretically the right to work, studies and medical help."

Recognition by France that she is stateless has not solved Railya's problems. She is entitled to work but has struggled to find full-time employment, working sporadically as an interpreter. Initially, potential employers treated her with suspicion because they were unfamiliar with the concept of statelessness. Now, she said, they "ask fewer questions about my strange status" because they have seen her UNHCR story-telling video on YouTube.

When France registered Railya as stateless, she was also entitled to a travel document. Despite this, she continues to face problems while travelling abroad, including going back to Kazakhstan to visit her parents.

"It is an outdated document," she said of the French-issued laissez-passer, adding that "because of this travel document I get stopped at the immigration control for 2-3 hours." She said it was easier for her husband to get a visa for Kazakhstan than for her. "I am Kazakh. He is not," she added, noting the irony.

In 2011, a fed up Railya also first applied for French citizenship, but she was rejected because she was unemployed at the time. Despite this setback, Railya submitted a fresh application earlier this year, based on her marriage.

Railya had to submit the application twice because French immigration officials found an error in her husband's birth certificate. However, despite all the challenges and after searching through archives, Railya is hopeful for a positive reply.

And she is also feeling more confident about finding permanent employment. Two years ago, she completed a secretarial course which helped her find work on a four-month project with an American agricultural firm. "The feeling of home... for me it is a long forgotten feeling and reminds me of the childhood memory of my first crush in elementary school ... but something similar to this feeling began to appear when I was working," she said.

Much remains to be done to reduce the number of stateless people in France (more than 1,200) and Europe (an estimated 600,000) and to ensure that people like Railya can enjoy basic rights and the chance to acquire a nationality one day.

"I am sure that I will have a country of my own someday. And I will be able to say, 'I'm coming home.' And I'll have the chance to build my future," said Railya, who will have a chance to tell her story later this month in the Netherlands. She will be a speaker at a three-day global forum on statelessness to be co-hosted in The Hague by UNHCR and Tilburg University.

By Valeriia Cherednichenko in Brussels, Belgium



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Railya was born in Kazakhstan but lost her nationality with the break-up of the Soviet Union.

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State Action on Statelessness

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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.

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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.

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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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