I have been working on the issue of statelessness for several years now. During this time, I have focused mainly on legal research and awareness raising work, and I have been continually fascinated by the legal intricacy statelessness unfolds. Despite this interest, and despite having done previous field research on the issue, I do not think I truly comprehended the extent of the problem of statelessness until now. Through my involvement in a project co-ordinated by the Women’s Refugee Commission, conducting advocacy-oriented research in four countries that maintain or have recently removed gender discrimination from their laws, I have had the opportunity to spend time with affected families.
I am now coming to the end of my stay in the first country of research: Jordan. Here, women are not entitled to transmit their nationality to their children so, in a variety of circumstances, children of Jordanian mothers end up stateless. My time here has emphasised how, as well as being a legal, political and theoretical conundrum, statelessness really is a major humanitarian problem. Having compiled nearly 50 testimonials and facilitated several focus group discussions, I have discovered something unique in each story and the problems it highlighted. Women’s inability to confer nationality has affected each family differently, but it has also affected each family severely.
I have sat in houses listening to women explaining how their children have, over the years, become increasingly ill as access to free healthcare was barred due to their lack of nationality. Added to this, as they are not Jordanian citizens, these children rarely have access to assistance provided by charities. I have been amongst young disillusioned men who are repeatedly arrested and temporarily detained as they carry no ID documents –being children of female Jordanian nationals gives them no right to identity papers. I have been in houses where the men sit all day at home, with no hope of finding legal employment, and seen foreign husbands who have to choose between remaining unemployed or working and risking deportation because they can’t afford expensive work permits.
Many of the families I met lived in very poor areas. Statelessness in these areas has one thing in common - it protracts, prolongs, and exacerbates this poverty. However it was not a problem exclusive to the poor. There was also the college student I met who was not able to travel because of her situation, and whose mother worried as she could never inherit from her family, since registering anything under her name is impossible.
Whilst in Jordan I also heard of a high-profile case of a Jordanian women who was attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. Her husband and children are trying to cross the border from Syria to Jordan to escape the violence. They, however, were refused entry. Putting aside regional politics, the fact that the man was married to a Jordanian, or that the children had a Jordanian mother, meant nothing. Not only can the children not obtain Jordanian nationality, they do not have the right to even enter their mother’s country under extreme humanitarian circumstances.
Not having the right to confer nationality to your children is often framed as a women’s rights issue. In the Levant region there has been much positive action and a variety of initiatives have sprung up to try and repeal this gender discrimination. And yes, it is clearly a gender issue, but this should not overshadow the fact that it is also so much more. It becomes a child’s rights issue when you ask a nine year old boy what he wants to be when he is older, and he replies that he can’t continue school for long, so nothing. Or when a two month old newborn is ill and coughing in the cold but has no access to free healthcare anywhere, as she is not a citizen of anywhere. Furthermore, it is often the men that suffer the most from this discrimination in the region. In addition to not being able to work and provide for their families, most families said they would only allow their daughters to marry citizens, so that they would be able to become Jordanian and the next generation’s access to nationality is also assured. For the stateless sons, the future is bleak – men have no hope of acquiring nationality through marriage and their children are doomed to inherit their condition.
Sitting in these houses and being amongst these families, gaining a very brief glimpse of the day to day, year to year, generation to generation struggles they experience highlighted how this really is a serious problem everywhere, with still so much more to be done. One sentiment however that I heard from the majority of these families was their continued optimism that there can, must and will be a reform of the nationality law. A sentiment that I have taken away too.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT:
This is the first phase of the project The Statelessness Programme is conducting as commissioned by the Women’s Refugees Commission. The next stage of the study will be conducted in Morocco. Discrimination in the nationality law was removed there in 2007 and the research hopes to discover how this amendment is being implemented and how it has impacted on the lives of the families who had been affected by this discrimination. The full findings of this project, alongside the video component will be available later in 2013.
Photo taken during a focus group discussion - most of the meetings were in people's homes, but this group met in relatively posh surroundings