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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Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

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Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

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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.

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

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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