Tuesday, 17 May 2011

More than just an intellectual brainteaser

There is no denying that statelessness makes for a fascinating intellectual puzzle. When I tell people about statelessness, a common response is surprise, or even consternation, that it is possible for someone to be neglected in such a fundamental way and left to live without any nationality. How does that happen? Why does that happen? What can be done? These are the usual questions generated upon learning of the existence of statelessness.

While the answers to these questions are relatively straight-forward (and will no doubt be touched upon in many of the blog posts to come), statelessness remains something of an intellectual brainteaser – even for those who have spent a good few years digging deeper into the mechanics of the phenomenon. Further study brings new questions to light. Why is human rights law concerned about statelessness, such that it establishes the right to a nationality, while simultaneously suggesting through the very system of rights as human rights, that nationality has lost its importance? If you appear to have a nationality on paper, but are never treated as a national by state authorities, are you stateless? Where a state is obliged, in accordance with its own international commitments, to confer nationality to a child who would otherwise be stateless, how does it expect to meet this obligation without putting in place a procedure to figure out whether the child in question would, indeed, otherwise be stateless?

But these and other theoretical ponderings will also have to wait their turn, for this post is about the other side of statelessness. Yes, statelessness is more than just an intellectual brainteaser: it’s also about people. It is this human side of statelessness that has truly captured hearts and led to some remarkable initiatives, by remarkable people. All over the world, grassroots organisations are working tirelessly to teach stateless people about their rights and to walk them through any available procedures that there might be to resolve their situation and acquire a nationality. On my first foray into the field to find out what was happening on the ground – a research trip to Thailand in 2006 – I met with numerous individuals and organisations whose impressive projects belie their shoestring budgets. The Mirror Foundation, for instance, was quietly fundraising through a range of cultural activities to help one stateless child at a time to pay for a DNA test that would allow them to prove their family ties with a parent or sibling who holds citizenship and confirm their own nationality on that basis. This is just one of dozens of examples around the world of a community that is empowering its members to help themselves.

Ever since that first exposure with an extraordinary project established by ordinary people, discovering other initiatives of this kind has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. The variety, creativity and sophistication of these initiatives is startling. Take the stunning and evocative work of photographer Greg Constantine, who has captured people’s experiences of statelessness in his Nowhere People series in a way that seamlessly combines art and documentary. His work and the way he does his work are an incredible source of inspiration, so keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to see his exhibition. Then there are the energetic young journalists from Holland, Els & Evelien, who have made it their mission to travel to a selection of countries affected by statelessness and record personal histories so that we can all get to know this vulnerable and often voiceless group a bit better. Their Citizens of Nowhere project is about to kick off and can be followed through their blog. Returning to Thailand for one last example for now, there’s the incredible story of Joseph & Susan: two students from a US university who started out documenting statelessness in Thailand through photography and have since devoted their time to Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid through their initiative, The Thailand Project.

Statelessness then, is first and foremost about people... about the stateless as a vulnerable group who deserve our attention... about the stateless as individuals with a capacity to act and affect change... and about other people who have been inspired by the human story of statelessness to do remarkable work. So if you have just discovered the phenomenon of statelessness and have questions about the what, why and how, these intiatives will provide you with a unique and invaluable insight. The intellectual brainteasers can wait for another day.

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

Monday, 9 May 2011

Citizenship in the Arab world

An introduction to a new research initiative on statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa.

MENA Statelessness and Nationality research project

After the success of the Africa nationality research project, Citizenship in Africa, the idea of launching a similar advocacy oriented research project on statelessness and nationality discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa developed, coordinated by the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative and the Arab Regional Office. A look at this region showed how the issue of statelessness, flaws in nationality legislation and discrimination in citizenship matters were apparent and often extreme. Despite this, very little effort or research had been undertaken. Hence, the MENA Statelessness and Nationality research project was launched in Amman in October 2010. The launching conference, which brought together experts and potential research partners, worked on developing the idea further. It was decided that the research would constitute an analysis of the nationality law of 18 countries in the region, alongside separate studies of prevalent regional thematic issues.

Statelessness and discrimination in access to citizenship are enormous problems across the MENA region and an initial study was done to pinpoint the main problematic topics that needed to be understood and addressed. The area hosts some of the largest populations of stateless persons in the world, including Palestinians in the Levant and elsewhere, Kurds in Syria, the Bidoon of the Arabian Peninsula, stateless Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, and black Mauritanians returning to their homeland after decades of forced exile. Each State has its own respective problems with key shortcomings in nationality legislation, but there were also many common regional trends, predominantly constituting;
· Rampant gender discrimination;
· Ethnic and religious discrimination;
· Lack of due process guarantees with respect to deprivation of citizenship;
· Lack of effective remedies for affected populations;
· Lack of implementation of positive policies and legislation, often leading to ad hoc and arbitrary practices and decisions

The rights of hundreds of thousands of people across the area continue to be violated due to these shortcomings and discrimination, violations that spread across communities and generations.

Future of the project

Soon after the identification of the issues and the launch of the project, the Arab region witnessed the commencement of uprisings across the area. In the short-term this led to obstacles in the development of the project. No field research was possible in the countries affected and there were enhanced difficulties in access to resources and networks. Even in States that were not witnessing internal uprisings, the volatile regional political situation did not offer an environment to launch - often sensitive - research and studies.

Despite these setbacks the changing scene presents a hope that these sudden developments will lead to important steps, steps that would establish an environment more accommodating to improving citizenship rights in the region. It has certainly highlighted the importance of the issue of citizenship. One of the first concessions made by the Syrian government in its attempt to quell frustration was to offer Syrian citizenship to Kurds who had been denied it for generations. In Kuwait, the Bidoon community are the main force actively protesting for their civil and social rights - forcing their issue into the limelight. And in Jordan, much discussion has been surfacing on halting the longstanding practice of withdrawing Jordanian citizenship from Palestinians.

One long-term hope for changes in the region is that a more developed civil society will emerge, which would go hand in hand with the advocacy projects the regional study on citizenship hopes to initiate. The wish is that this would come alongside a more established atmosphere of transparency and accountability - helping address the problem of implementing protective legislation on the matter.

The project continues to grow and gather together a variety researchers on the issues, and now perhaps an improved future environment to engage on the issue of MENA statelessness and nationality.

Zahra Albarazi, Coordinator, MENA statelessness and nationality research project