in South Sudan

Preventing statelessness

“I never realized the importance of having nationality documents until I returned to Wau and tried to claim my family’s property”, says 47-year-old Lucia Tomo. “I almost lost my house and my land because I could not prove my identity and my citizenship.”

Tomo lived without proof of her nationality for almost her entire life. She was born in Wau, a village in what today is the North of South Sudan, back in 1968, when South Sudan and Sudan were still one country. In 1986,, she was forced to flee to Juba and then to the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 1992 due to armed conflict.

Lucia Tomo is among half a million men, women and children who are at risk of statelessness in South Sudan, according to a UNHCR survey. Born in Sudan before South Sudan’s independence, many had no means to get identity and nationality documents or ignored how important it was to be able to prove their nationality. As a result, today, many have trouble like Tomo to prove their link to South Sudan since the secession from Sudan in 2011.

While there are no official statistics about their number, UNHCR in partnership with South Sudan’s Department of Nationality, Passports and Immigration (DNPI) has helped more than 9,000 people since 2013 to obtain nationality documents in a bid to prevent statelessness.

When the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, Lucia Tomo decided to go back home after nearly 20 years away. “When I arrived in Wau, I was shocked to find that someone else had moved into our house”, she says. During the lady’s long absence from Wau, a family occupied the house and farm that she had inherited from her husband “That was his property but to reclaim it, I had to prove my origin. When you live through war and displacement, the least likely thing you think about is getting your papers”, she shrugs. “So I did not have the necessary evidence.”

Getting nationality documents in this part of the world is a cumbersome and expensive process. An individual must produce an age assessment or birth certificate, a blood test and four photographs, and pay nearly US $50, in addition to finding a credible witness who can attest to one’s origin.

With the help of local chiefs and elders in Wau, Lucia Tomo was able to get her property back. “I knew I was still in a position of weakness, legally speaking, but I could not afford the costs of the documents and I knew no one who could vouch for me”, she said.

Things got worse when her son Gennaro applied to become a firefighter with the Civil Defence. His mother remembers that he was enrolled in the training, completed the course but was finally excluded due to lack of a nationality certificate. “How can you be a South Sudanese firefighter if you can’t demonstrate you are a South Sudanese national in the first place?”, she asks. “The thought of my children’s uncertain future was unbearable…that they wouldn’t be able to study, to get a job or marry.”

But the lady found renewed hope when UNHCR launched a programme in 2013 to identify and assist people at risk of statelessness together with DNPI. “They covered the costs of getting nationality certificates for me and my three children”, she says. A neighbour was found who bore witness to Lucia’s South Sudanese origin. “I can now prove that there is a bond between me and my country”, says Lucia.

Obtaining nationality documents allowed her and her children to enjoy the same rights as other fellow citizens. “I got a job with an NGO. That would have been impossible without a proof of nationality”, she says. “I am so relieved that my daughter Lavina won’t have to face what my son Gennaro and I have gone through as strangers in our own land.”

Rocco Nuri in Wau, South Sudan

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