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“I was born here. This is my motherland”


“I was born here. This is my motherland”

Having lived in Almaty all her life, Natalya never gave up hope to confirm citizenship for her and her daughter.
25 March 2024
Natalya poses with her sister, niece and nephew on a sofa in their home.

Natalya (left) became stateless when her employer lost her USSR passport. Without facing such an issue, Natalya’s sister Svetlana (right) and her children, were able to confirm her citizenship of independent Kazakhstan, and have never had to face being stateless

Twenty years ago, the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan was known as ‘Alma-Ata’, which loosely translates to “grandfather of apples”. The oldest ancestor of the modern-day apple is said to trace back to the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan.  

It is not surprising then, that one of Natalya’s favourite memories of her childhood in Almaty is the abundance of apples. “There were so many apples growing everywhere,” says Natalya. 

Like her parents, Natalya was raised in Almaty, and has lived in the city her entire life.  

Born before Kazakhstan’s independence, and like many people in the region in the 1990s, Natalya’s legal identity document and official citizenship were from the USSR. In her twenties, she worked for a cosmetics company, one that would hold on to the passports of its employees. 

And one day, they lost hers.  

Natalya found herself without any documentation proving her identity, or that she was from Kazakhstan at all. Natalya had suddenly become at serious risk of statelessness.  

Statelessness in Kazakhstan 

A stateless person is not considered as a national by any country. As of mid-2023, there were 8,266 registered stateless people in Kazakhstan. Like Natalya, most are ex-citizens of the former Soviet Union, or their descendants, who have not yet acquired or confirmed citizenship of Kazakhstan. Others are born stateless or became stateless due to gaps in nationality laws, international migration, and mixed marriages. 

With no proof of having a nationality or any legal status, stateless people often have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. They are unable to register marriage, or even the birth of their children.  

“I didn’t have any rights,” said Natalya. “I had problems getting an official job. I felt like a homeless person. I felt that others perceived me badly.” 

Natalya spent the next 20 years struggling, working unofficially where and when she could, and all the while looking for ways to resolve her situation.  

“I approached several organizations, and went to several archives,” says Natalya. “But it didn’t help.”  

In 2013, Natalya gave birth to her daughter Veronika, and the challenges of not having confirmed citizenship extended to the next generation. “I couldn’t register her or get a birth certificate for her,” says Natalya, even though her daughter was born in a medical facility.  

When Veronika turned seven and it was time for her to start school, no school would accept her because she had no documents – no proof of who she was, where she was from, or that she had the right to be there.  

Even other children did not want to associate with her.  

“I felt very bad that no one wanted to talk to my daughter, no one want to engage with her because she had no documents,” says Natalya.  

Natalya’s sister – who was already a citizen of Kazakhstan, as her documents were not lost – helped Veronika, supporting payment of private tutors so that she could get an education.

Natalya watches over her daughter Veronika do homework.

Without proof of nationality, Natalya could not get a birth certificate for Veronika when she was born. Later, Veronika could not enter school for the same reason.

Ending statelessness by 2024 

In 2022, a friend of Natalya’s sister suggested that they contact the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights (BHR) – a non-governmental organization supported by UNHCR to identify and resolve statelessness.  

With the free advice and legal support from BHR lawyers, Natalya gathered the information she needed to – and could – to submit to the migration authorities. Within months she was confirmed as a citizen of Kazakhstan. 

Now, with her Kazakhstan National ID, Natalya can work legally, pay taxes, and contribute to the pension fund. Veronika now too has an identity document – a birth certificate which, once she turns 16, will enable her access to a Kazakhstan National ID – and is enrolled in school.  

“I was born here,” says Natalya. “This is my motherland. I’m proud of being a citizen of Kazakhstan.” 

For over a decade Kazakhstan, supported by UNHCR, has made good progress in reducing and preventing statelessness. Last December at the Global Refugee Forum – the largest international conference on refugee and statelessness issues – the Government of Kazakhstan made five pledges, including two dedicated to ending statelessness.  

The global #IBelong campaign – generously supported by UNHCR’s biggest donor, the U.S. government and the American People, and partners around the world – aims to end statelessness by December 2024. Since the launch of the campaign in 2014, nearly 13,000 people in Kazakhstan have had their citizenship documented. 

Kazakhstan has become ready to join many other UN Member States in acceding to the two UN Statelessness Conventions. The universal implementation of these two Conventions would end statelessness globally within a single generation. 

This web story was originally posted on UNHCR's Central Asia website