Mohammad still remembers the day when, aged nine and having just started school near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the deputy principal called him out of class. He was told that due to his lack of identity documents he would no longer be able to attend lessons.
“I went home and realized that I had to go and work to support my family. Only work, and nothing else,” he says. “I have never experienced being a student or had a childhood. There has been no comfort in my life since then.”
Though he did not realize it back then, Mohammad is stateless. He is a second-generation member of Iraq’s Bidoon community, which arrived in the country from Kuwait immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, most with no recognized nationality or official papers.
As a result, despite being born in Iraq, Mohammad has spent his life living on the margins of society. He has no access to basic services including education and health care and is unable to vote, get married or even move around freely.
"I felt that I did not exist."
The lack of an official identify has left Mohammad with scars, both mental and physical. After he was hit by a car when he was 12 years old, his mother Salima took him to the local hospital with a badly broken nose and ruptured ankle ligaments. But when she was unable produce identity documents for her or her son, the doctors would only administer first aid before sending them home.
The misshapen bridge of his nose and the pain he still feels in his ankle are daily reminders of injuries that never properly healed. But it is the psychological toll of his situation that has affected him most deeply, leaving him reluctant to venture outside the sparsely furnished concrete shelter he shares with his mother and sister for fear of being asked to produce ID.
“I felt that I did not exist. When you don’t have documents you are not counted,” he explains. “I feel like I have to watch my every move. I don’t even go to the local market, I just walk to work and come straight back home. My movement is very limited without civil documents.”
There are tens of thousands of Bidoons currently living in Iraq. Short for bidoon jinsiya – meaning “without nationality” in Arabic – most, like Mohammad’s mother Salima, can trace their heritage back to Iraq before their forebears settled in neighbouring Kuwait.
Now, thanks to a partnership between UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – and Iraqi NGO Mercy Hands, there is hope for Mohammad and others like him.
Since August 2017, lawyers from Mercy Hands backed by UNHCR funding have been working to help Bidoons and other stateless people acquire Iraqi nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.
Salima is one of those they have helped. Having found two living witnesses who could testify to her parents’ Iraqi heritage, lawyer Laith Najar launched proceedings in the courts on Salima’s behalf. After a six-month legal process, earlier this year she was granted Iraqi citizenship.
"This has given me hope."
“I am so happy, it has put my mind at ease,” Salima says, the heavy lines around her eyes softening as she smiles. “I have a real hope that my children will be able to get their documents soon.”
Najar says the next step is to launch similar proceedings for Mohammad and his sister, based on their mother’s newfound legal status. Iraq’s nationality law was amended in 2006 to ensure that all children born inside the country can acquire nationality on an equal basis from their mother or father, unlike many other countries in the region where it is only through the father.
The challenge in Salima’s case is that neither her marriage nor the birth of her children was ever registered, so these will have to be established through the courts before Mohammad’s case can be resolved
Najar says the number of cases they can process each year is currently limited by the resources available, with only three full-time lawyers working in the field. But as the number of Bidoons and other stateless people who gain citizenship increases in Iraq, through them it should be possible for others to prove their nationality more easily, he adds.
“One of the questions we ask is whether they have any relatives in Iraq, and that information allows us to widen the circle,” he explains. “I feel very happy that these people can obtain their documents and prove their identity as Iraqis.”
Mohammad says that gaining a nationality after all these years would ease his anxiety and allow him to start building the kind of life that has been denied to him for so long.
“This has given me hope that because my mum has documents, I will be able to get them too,” he says. “Now I have hope that I will be able to get married, and live my life like any other person around me.”
If you want to know more about how you can make a difference to the lives of people like Mohammad, join our #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness.