Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Statelessness: Does anyone want these people ?

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1998

DOES ANYONE WANT THESE PEOPLE?

The problem of statelessness has become a live issue again

The family had been in exile for decades, but when the Crimean Tatars eventually returned to their ancestral homeland they dreamed of a new beginning. Instead, the Tatars found themselves virtual non persons. The family was not allowed to own property, find work in nearby towns or fill even menial farm jobs. During the harsh winter months, four generations of the family huddled together in a single room. When the family's father suffered a fatal heart attack searching for wild berries and roots to feed his wife and children, there was no dignity in death; without the proper papers he could not be officially buried.

The Tatar family members are among countless people around the world who do not have a country they can call home. They are persons who are not recognized by any state as citizens. Trapped in this legal limbo, they enjoy only minimal access to national or international legal protection or to such basic rights as health, education and political choice. Effectively, they are outcasts from the global political system of the nation-state which has evolved in the last century.

International Conventions were established in 1954 (Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons) and 1961 (Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness) and in 1974 the U.N. General Assembly asked UNHCR to provide limited legal assistance to stateless persons. In those first postwar decades few countries even acceded to the Conventions, but in the last few years statelessness has again become a 'live' issue on the international agenda.

The problem has been fuelled by a bewildering array of complex and disparate developments ranging from sudden and sweeping political changes such as the breakup of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, disagreements about descent, ownership, tribal affiliations, the role of women and children and power balances between different ethnic groups.

ENDING THEIR EXILE

The Tatar family mentioned above, for instance, was among an estimated 250,000 ethnic Crimeans originally deported by Stalin in 1944 who returned 'home' following the collapse of the Soviet Union to what is modern-day Ukraine. An estimated 17,000 Tatars came back stateless though the great majority had already acquired another nationality such as Uzbek citizenship or were granted Ukrainian citizenship at independence in 1991. The government faced the tricky dilemma of how to successfully integrate large numbers of people who, while enjoying strong historical links with the region, had few legal ties and thus few 'rights' such as access to work and social services. Many returning Tatars had their own headache: whether to run the risk of surrendering their existing citizenship with no guarantee they would obtain Ukrainian nationality.

When Czechoslovakia split into two sovereign states in 1992-93, some people became caught in a strange no-man's land. They voted in the new Czech Republic where they had lived physically for years, but overnight they were deemed to be citizens of the neighbouring Slovak Republic. To qualify for Czech citizenship, they had first to establish their Slovak status, renounce this citizenship making themselves temporarily stateless, and then apply for Czech nationality. If they were refused, they remained stateless as happened to some Roma (gypsies) and were then dependent on Slovak authorities agreeing to reinstate their Slovak identities.

A world away in Asia, a group of several hundred ethnic Chinese who fled Viet Nam to Hong Kong during the boat people exodus in the 1970s and 1980s, remain trapped in a similar legal and politically charged labyrinth today. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boatpeople were resettled in new countries or eventually went back to Viet Nam and more than a half million ethnic Chinese who fled directly to the People's Republic were integrated there. These Chinese, however, became, in legal terms, "unclaimed." Hanoi refused to take them back because they were not citizens, China turned them away, and they did not qualify for residency status in Hong Kong which subsequently reverted to Chinese rule.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

Even if a country agrees to consider a stateless person for citizenship, rulings are often influenced by the state's historical, political and philosophical makeup. In some cases families who have lived in a particular country for generations are refused citizenship because of their ethnicity, religion, race or even social and linguistic backgrounds. When governments change or are overthrown, people can be retroactively stripped of citizenship and property, detained and finally expelled as happened with the Asian population in Uganda when Idi Amin seized power there in the 1970s. During the Cold War years, Romanians and Soviets who wanted to emigrate first had to renounce their citizenship with no guarantee they could obtain a new nationality. Many ended up 'stranded' without a country to call home.

Inheriting a nationality can also be problematic and in cases where a father is stateless or has divorced, the mother is often unable to pass her nationality on to children even though they are born in her own country. Failure or refusal to register a child's birth can result in statelessness.

As the statelessness problem became more pronounced, a General Assembly resolution in 1996 mandated UNHCR to broaden its role, helping promote the avoidance and elimination of statelessness on a global scale. UNHCR established a specific 'statelessness post' within the organization's Division of International Protection and cooperated with states, international and regional organizations to help accession to existing Conventions, strengthen national laws and promote new agreements. It worked with the Council of Europe on the 1997 European Convention on Nationality, the International Law Commission on the draft Declaration on Nationality following State Succession, the Office of the High Representative in drafting new citizenship laws for Bosnia-Herzegovina and the OSCE in developing programmes for minorities.

UNHCR worked closely with Ukrainian authorities, launching a widespread public information campaign including television videos, posters and brochures and establishing a local non-governmental organization named Assistance to offer legal advice to the Tatars on citizenship issues. The results have been encouraging. In 1997-98, 4,500 returnees were given Ukrainian citizenship compared with 150 between 1992-96. The Czech Republic, with UNHCR assistance, began a process of reviewing individual cases in that country and hundreds of of individuals who previously were unable to acquire Czech citizenship had their cases successfully reviewed. This has set a precedent for the development of similar programmes in other countries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines that "Everyone has the right to a nationality." Each state has a nationality law and citizenship is one of the most precious gifts any government can bestow. But in an era of increasing ethnic tension, mass migrations of people and governments ever more reluctant to 'welcome' refugees or other groups, the number of stateless persons appears bound to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)