Telling the Human Story, 23 December 2013
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