Thursday, 16 May 2013

GUEST POST: An Insight into Nepalese Citizenship

As part of the course 'Nationality, Statelessness and Human Rights', taught every spring semester at Tilburg Law School, we ask students to analyse a country's nationality law against relevant international standards and then write a comment piece about it. Students who write the most compelling comments are invited to publish these here, on our blog site. Below is one of the three student pieces composed in 2013, we hope you enjoy it...

An Insight into Nepalese Citizenship

At first glance, Nepalese nationality appears relatively straightforward to acquire. Its Citizenship Act allows for citizenship by descent - where either parent must be Nepalese, by birth for those born prior to 1990 or by naturalisation. However, a deeper analysis would reveal that the country’s citizenship is in fact not simple to obtain. Despite one section of the law stating that having either parent as Nepalese is sufficient for a child to acquire Nepalese nationality, a separate section indicates that a child wishing to acquire his/her Nepalese mother’s citizenship must in fact have permanent residence in Nepal. Not only does this place a geographical restriction on children of Nepalese women and foreign men who desire Nepalese citizenship, it is also gender discriminatory since women are not allowed to pass on citizenship in the same way as men. In addition, the law creates the possibility that a child with a Nepalese mother and stateless father may become stateless if he/she resides overseas.

Acquiring citizenship by virtue of birth on Nepal territory is also limited to those born before 1990, hence Nepali birthright citizenship by jus soli is no longer in practice, with special exception given to foundlings. This leaves naturalisation as a remaining choice for citizenship acquisition based on a connection to the territory. However, the conditions for naturalisation appear relatively difficult to fulfil as one would need to have resided in Nepal for 15 years, during which he/she must be engaged in an occupation and has renounced prior citizenship. A less demanding naturalisation process exists for foreign women married to local Nepalese men. Such women are granted a specialised and expedited naturalisation procedure.

Additionally, dual citizenship for Nepalese is strictly forbidden, and acquisition of foreign nationality automatically invalidates a person’s existing Nepali citizenship. It has been suggested that Nepal’s nationality laws intentionally make it relatively difficult for foreigners to readily take up local citizenship or hold dual nationality due to Nepal’s geographical location. Being situated near highly-populated India and China, Nepal intends to discourage high influx of immigrants as well as reduce illegal cross-border settlements. Moreover, there is a strong presence of Bhutanese and Tibetan refugees seeking asylum and Nepal is somewhat reluctant to grant Nepalese citizenship to these persons.

It is interesting to note that Nepal’s nationality law sometimes fulfils the country’s international obligations while for other situations it does not. For example, Nepal does not have any measures to safeguard against possibility of statelessness for children born in Nepal territory. This is a violation of article 7 of Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention which Nepal has been a party to since 1990. Nepal also does not state it would facilitate naturalisation for stateless children, another recommendation that could be read into the Rights of the Child Convention. However, there are also occasions where Nepal goes beyond fulfilling its own international obligations. This can be seen from how it intends to grant citizenship to persons on territories it may acquire in the future, a provision mentioned in the Reduction of Statelessness Convention.

I believe Nepal’s inconsistency in fulfilling international obligations regarding statelessness can be attributed to the fact that its nationality laws were not drafted with any consideration regarding statelessness. There exist opinions that its Citizenship Act was hastily formulated so that Nepali residents could obtain citizenship certificates which would allow them to partake in the country’s 2006 Constituent Assembly election. This is an opinion I find myself compelled to believe, as the law is evidently brief with regards to nationality issues such as statelessness and citizenship acquisiton for children. Instead, there is a proportionately larger emphasis on citizenship certificates and how to acquire them.

However, what seems to be a strength about Nepal’s nationality law is that citizens are only deprived of nationality in two instances: when citizenship certificates are obtained by fraudulent means and when a foreign nationality is accepted. Many other countries often include clauses stating that treason, participation in foreign military or engagement in crimes deemed highly detrimental to society would result in loss of nationality. Thus, although Nepalese citizenship is not easy to acquire, it is also not readily stripped away from those who already possess it. In this regard, there is lesser chance of citizens being made stateless later in life.

Hui Kin Ng, Exchange student visiting Tilburg University from Nanyang Business School - Nanyang Technological University Singapore, second year of undergraduate studies in Accountancy


GUEST POST: Nationality in the Land of the Free

As part of the course 'Nationality, Statelessness and Human Rights', taught every spring semester at Tilburg Law School, we ask students to analyse a country's nationality law against relevant international standards and then write a comment piece about it. Students who write the most compelling comments are invited to publish these here, on our blog site. Below is one of the three student pieces composed in 2013, we hope you enjoy it...

Nationality in the Land of the Free

Thailand is called ‘The land of the free’ because it was not colonized by European powers. Nevertheless, it did not escape a very Western concept: nationality. Since it was introduced in Thailand in 1913, Nationality has had the principle of jus sanguinis (nationality passed through bloodlines). As long one of your parents is Thai, you are entitled to Thai nationality. Later, jus soli was introduced (acquiring nationality by birth in Thailand). Finally, Naturalization and acquiring nationality through marriage also became possible.

These principles could theoretically solve most statelessness problems, but then the jus soli principle become subject to certain conditions. Now certain people born in Thailand can be stateless. For example, if none of your parents have Thai nationality and at least one of them is illegal in the country, you will not acquire Thai nationality.

Thailand has many migrants because of its location and economic growth. Most of these were not registered in their own countries, but through naturalization and residency permits Thailand can either help solve their statelessness, or give them a legal status in the country. The problem is that there are still indigenous people, immigrants, and refugees that are stateless and sometimes unregistered in Thailand, so this condition to the jus soli principle will perpetuate statelessness for their newborn children. This is not in accordance with the International norms that apply to Thailand stating that ‘all children have a right to nationality’.

Since 2005 Thailand has started the “Strategy to address the Problem of Legal Status and Right to Identity”. Many efforts are being made to at least ensure that everyone is registered, has identity documents, and inform them of their entitlement to nationality where applicable. Because of the high level of statelessness amongst children, a taskforce was made to identify stateless students and help them attain nationality. This is related to Thailand’s international responsibility to ensure that every child has an education. Children cannot receive their diplomas or certificates if they are stateless. It is also worth noting that the newest nationality act applies retroactively, so if previously you were stateless but based on new laws you should have been entitled to your Thai nationality, you may receive it if you fulfil the conditions.

These efforts are impressive and say a lot when we compare Thailand to other countries dealing with statelessness. An area in which Thailand has no obligations but still has measures in accordance with prevention of statelessness is for renunciation of nationality. It seems that a condition to renounce Thai nationality is having acquired, or being able to acquire another one, and if you lose that other nationality you can retrieve the Thai nationality.

It does have international obligations against gender and racial discrimination, but it complies with these. The only gender distinction in Thai nationality law is one where both foreign men and women can acquire Thai nationality when married to a national, but women have a privileged process. This is a great step up if we consider that at first Thailand had many reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

An area where it does not comply with its international obligations, besides the aforementioned statelessness situation upon birth, is in the context of loss or deprivation of nationality. People can be deprived of their nationality even if this results in statelessness based on certain conditions that are to the ‘discretion of the minister’. This can be considered arbitrary because of its scope of abuse, since conditions for depriving people of their nationality are ‘insulting the nation’, ‘acting against good morals’, and ‘committing acts in conflict with state interest’. Making the loss or deprivation of nationality subject to less abstract conditions, and taking statelessness into account could definitely improve this.  

Other things that can be improved are making provisions for foundlings, and informing the Thai population about nationality laws. Currently there are many stateless people that are entitled to nationality but simply do not know it.  A good example of how this could be done is by supporting or replicating UNICEF projects of legal assistance, such as ‘the stateless classroom’ project, where stateless persons are given legal assistance and are taught the law. That way people can learn how they can deal with their specific situations and help their acquaintances with their knowledge (The stateless classroom, 2009). Finally, the officials responsible should be better informed and have more structured procedures. This would reduce arbitrary decisions, and increase transparency. This way, those few trapped in statelessness, ignorance, or subject to arbitrary measures, have a better chance of enjoying the privileges of nationality, such as freedom of movement. Privileges that one should have in a place referred to as the Land of the Free.

Veronica Perozo Alberti, a second year student on Liberal Arts and Sciences at Tilburg University, majoring in European Law. Veronica was born in Venezuela, grew up in Curacao and holds naturalised Dutch nationality.


GUEST POST: Is Liberia’s nationality law sufficient for the 21st century?

As part of the course 'Nationality, Statelessness and Human Rights', taught every spring semester at Tilburg Law School, we ask students to analyse a country's nationality law against relevant international standards and then write a comment piece about it. Students who write the most compelling comments are invited to publish these here, on our blog site. Below is one of the three student pieces selected in 2013, we hope you enjoy it...

Is Liberia’s nationality law sufficient for the 21st century?

The most striking thing about Liberia’s nationality law is that it is out rightly racist. The first article explicitly states that only “A person who is Negro, or of Negro descent” can be considered a citizen of Liberia at birth. Furthermore, the same eligibility criterion applies for anyone who wishes to be naturalized as a citizen of Liberia. This is a law that blatantly violates international standards on so many levels, as it strips basic human rights from adults and children alike. This despite being one of the nation states which have acceded to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination(1965)

Just like its first article, the bulk of Liberia’s nationality laws fail to comply with international standards. For the most part, the laws may come off as restrictive in terms of access to nationality, rather than ensuring that it protects people. In a sense, Liberia’s nationality laws can be described as being extremely archaic, comparable to that of the early 20th century.

Other than being discriminatory based on race, the laws are also discriminatory against gender. In that, women do not have equal rights to nationality as men. This can be seen in article 21.31 of the nationality law, which basically says that a child can only obtain citizenship if the father is a citizen, or if the father is naturalized to become a citizen. This is so, even if the mother is a citizen. Which means that women do not have equal rights with men when it comes to the nationality of their own children. This violates many international norms which stress the importance of the equality of men and women, and in particularly article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), which says “States Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children”.

Imagine a hypothetical situation where a child is born to a citizen mother and a foreign father. If the father happens to be Negro, then perhaps it is well and good because the father can then be naturalized and pass on the nationality to the child, assuming all other criterions are met. However if the father happens to be Asian (or any other race without Negro descent), and is not able to pass on his nationality due to laws in his country for various reasons, or if he is stateless, then there would be no possible way that the child would be able to obtain citizenship, except later in his life. This however would mean that the damage would have already been done and a significant part of the person’s life would have passed. Not only is the woman stripped of equal rights as a citizen, she will be burdened with the inevitable situation of having a stateless child, which could lead to many other problems, including getting education and healthcare. Even though this is a hypothetical situation, it is one that has real consequences that could possibly happen because of Liberia’s biased laws. Therefore, it effectively encapsulates the flaws that plague Liberia’s nationality laws because many people, and children in particular can easily fall through the cracks to end up stateless.

Apart from being discriminatory, it is interesting to note that despite having acceded to the Convention on the reduction of statelessness (1961) in 2004, Liberia’s nationality laws still fall extremely short in its efforts to reduce the number of stateless people in its territory. An area that could be targeted is perhaps one that ensures that children in the state are not born stateless. For example, there are currently no laws that protect children against statelessness because the country does not guarantee citizenship to children born in the territory, or laws that ensure that foundlings do not end up stateless. Furthermore, the nationality laws also seem to lack safeguards and precautions, which could possibly prevent people from ending up stateless unnecessarily.

It is now the 21st century and the Liberia nationality laws could indeed do with a massive facelift that was due years ago. If nothing else, it should at least strive to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and in particular that of race and gender. In addition, they could also implement safeguards that would act as safety nets to protect people from becoming stateless, and children from being born stateless. There are also no laws in place that protect people from statelessness in the context of loss or renunciation of nationality. These steps in preventing the statelessness of people, and children should be put in place, as it will go a long way to ensure that the global stateless population does not continue to grow.

Noreen Mohammad, 20 years old and currently on exchange at Tilburg University from Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, part of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, where she is majoring in Communications

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

GUEST BLOG: A short history of ‘Dutch statelessness’ after the Spanish Civil War

The Dutch minister of Justice is currently researching the possibility of revoking Dutch passports or even the citizenship of those currently fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. According to the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, Dick Schoof, some one hundred, mostly young people have made the journey from the Netherlands to Syria. While the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats propose to revoke only passports to prevent people travelling to Syria, Geert Wilders’ PVV party asked explicitly to consider revoking Dutch citizenship in the case of double nationality and to deport those former Dutch citizens to the country of citizenship according to their other passport. Liberal Dijkshoorn (VVD) wonders, if those fighters might lose their citizenship in analogy to what was once considered ‘foreign military service’ and asks the minister, if it is possible to revoke as many Dutch citizenships as possible.

In light of the current affairs, it is worth looking at the history of Dutch volunteer fighters in foreign wars. One of these wars was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Some 600 Dutch volunteers joined the communist International Brigades to fight against Franco and the Nationalists. Another dozen joined the anarchist forces. According to one publication there was also one Dutchman fighting on the side of Franco. The Dutch state chose a politics of non-intervention concerning the civil war in Spain, and a politics of intervention concerning the domestic groups, mostly communist, in support of the Spanish Republic. The Dutch government was aware of groups that started the recruitment of volunteers for the war in Spain. People who had fought in Spain but regretted their choice were helped to return to the Netherlands in exchange for information. Secret agents were used to collect names of Dutch citizens in Spain and helped to collect information pertaining to the manner in which these citizens arrived in Spain.

The problem was that there were no legal means to stop people from leaving the country (as is the case today). What could be done, however, was putting a stamp in new passports that made them invalid for Spain. This probably did not have much effect, as those involved in recruiting and helping volunteers had prior experience in helping German communists who fled persecution in Germany since 1933, sometimes helping them to get to Belgium or France: they had experience in secretly helping people cross the border illegally. Once a volunteer reached the French-Spanish border, the republicans couldn’t care less about their passports, with or without a stamp. They openly welcomed the help offered by the foreign volunteers, especially in the early phase of the conflict.

Another measure by the Dutch state was a communiqué by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1937, stating that those who joined the armed forces in Spain would lose their Dutch citizenship. This was not a new law: according to the Dutch Nationality Law of 1892 article 7, section 4: ‘one loses his or her citizenship by joining foreign military or civil service without Our permission.’ From a legal standpoint, this loss was automatic and not to be considered a punishment. This communiqué must be seen as a measure to restrict travel for future volunteers. It seems, however, as if it didn’t have much of an effect, as most volunteers left the Netherlands after this communiqué.

At the same time, as stated above, the state actively researched the names of those who went to Spain (by, for instance, interviewing family members of those suspected). While revoking their citizenship might have been automatic, acquiring the names of the concerned individuals was anything but. In June 1937, a new royal order was implemented, stating that all acts promoting and assisting participation in one of the forces in Spain are forbidden, thus criminalizing all recruitment activity. All political parties were in favour of this order, except for the communist party (CPN). Despite a few arrests in enforcing this order, recruitment was secretly conducted from the very start and thus hardly affected. Meanwhile, some deserters returned to the Low Countries, stating they were promised work in Spain. Interviews with some of these deserters in the newspaper de Telegraaf draw a picture of poor workless people being press-ganged with false promises. It is most likely the case that these deserters created a story that would ultimately help them in not having their citizenship revoked, e.g.: it was work they were looking for in Spain, not war, and they were forced to fight.

It is estimated that some 250 volunteers lost their citizenship upon returning to the Netherlands, and about 200 volunteers managed to avoid it. As Toon van de Berg stated: ‘It didn’t happen to me, I left in silence, and I came back in even more silence.’ In 1938 the Spanish Republic decided to withdraw all foreign volunteers. This measure was done in the hope to gain more sympathy and help from Western States, especially France and England who were neutral in the conflict. While Germany and Italy officially also were neutral, they supported Franco. The biggest support for the republicans came from the U.S.S.R., and their help was on the decline. At the same time, the political situation in Europe was becoming ever more tense, as Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia with an armed conflict in order to annex the Sudentenland.

In October 1938 a big parade was organized in Barcelona as to see off the foreign volunteers- some 200.000 people gathered to celebrate their departure. The welcome in the Netherlands was a different one. A group of 117 Dutch volunteers entered the country by train in Roosendaal and were welcomed by the Marechaussee and official investigators. The singing of battle songs was forbidden, but as it was 5 December, the day of St Nicholas, the group decided to sing the well-known Dutch St Nicholas song: ‘See over there, the steamboat from Spain is arriving again’, a song that could hardly be forbidden. After all luggage was inspected by the Marechaussee, who were searching for weapons and propaganda material, an official told the group that they had lost their Dutch citizenship. They were served a meal of sauerkraut and bacon, which led afterwards to a discussion in the Dutch parliament: was this meal, paid for by the State, indeed necessary? It is unclear why those volunteers didn’t try to reach the Netherlands without being noticed by the authorities – maybe the group was just too big to do it otherwise. Some 62 volunteers followed later on.

What is striking in the literature about the Dutch volunteers in Spain is that, on the one hand, people were aware of the possibility of losing one’s citizenship by joining the armed forces in the civil war, and, on the other hand, that the fact of losing this citizenship also gets a prominent place in the literature. In my research for my Master’s thesis about loss of citizenship after the German occupation, it felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially with regard to other groups than the SS. The fact that the statelessness of the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War receives such a prominent place in the literature is not only due to the indignation of this measure, as the volunteers felt they were fighting the first and just battle against the upcoming fascism in Europe, but also because this statelessness put them in a vulnerable position as soon as the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. In addition, the process of regaining the Dutch citizenship after the German occupation would become a theatre play with many acts, with the latest known re-naturalisation in 1969.

More on the consequences of statelessness for the Dutch volunteers after the Spanish Civil War and the long way to become a Dutch citizen again in my next blog…

Julia Mattern wrote her master thesis about the loss of citizenship of Dutch volunteers working for the Nazi construction organisation “Organisation Todt” during German occupation (1940-1945). This organisation built e.g. the Atlantic Wall.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

GUEST BLOG: Moving Statelessness Forward on the International Human Rights Agenda

[This blog originally appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness]

The word “statelessness” had not yet entered my vocabulary when I first arrived in Thailand during the spring of 2005. I had come to conduct research on human trafficking, and I was under the false impression that everyone had nationality somewhere. At first I caught glimpses of the problem from Bangkok – murmurs of hill tribe women on Soi Cowboy in the red light district, offhand remarks about “illegal” indigenous groups that sent children south to work in resort towns such as Pattaya and Phuket. It wasn’t until I headed north to the border town of Mae Sai, where I was scheduled to work with a local NGO, that the term “stateless” began to have meaning for me. It was in Mae Sai and the surrounding countryside where I witnessed the human costs resulting from lack of nationality – including poverty and vulnerabilities to sex trafficking. By the time I arrived back in the United States to write a thesis on what I had learned in Thailand, the issue of statelessness had become a major source of frustration for me. Not only had I never heard of this problem during my graduate studies, but it seemed that very few scholars, policymakers, or human rights advocates had heard of it, either. My own subsequent searches for information – hunts for library books and journal articles, online searches, calls to refugee law centers and immigration NGOs in the United States – yielded few results and seemed to confirm the inattention described, with annoyance, by NGO and UN experts in Thailand.

               The issue of statelessness has certainly gained more attention from the international community since 2005, yet the problem has not fully emerged onto the human rights agenda. Although it is true that statelessness has enjoyed partial emergence during the past few years – the UNHCR recently prioritized statelessness as a budgetary pillar, for instance, and a landmark 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva reinforced and expanded state commitments to international legal frameworks related to statelessness – the problem has not yet garnered widespread public attention or become “mainstream” enough to warrant campaign adoption by a major human rights NGO. This disconnect between the issue’s severity and its level of support has prompted me to ask the simple question: Why do some issues make it onto the international NGO agenda while others do not? Limited academic scholarship on issue emergence – the twin steps of constructing and accepting a specific problem as an international issue in the first place – provides us with a starting point, but fails to adequately explain the non-emergence of statelessness.

               In an attempt to better understand why statelessness has received limited international attention despite its global pervasiveness and negative ramifications, I conducted interviews with 21 decision-makers at leading U.S. human rights and humanitarian NGOs. My findings identified three main weaknesses for the issue of statelessness: issue heterogeneity, lack of global solutions, and lack of political will. First, issue heterogeneity creates strategic obstacles and impedes statelessness’ emergence. As one interview respondent quite simply observed, “statelessness is not clear to a lot of people.” Because of the complex nature of this issue, statelessness encounters obstacles related to strategic characteristics including: absence of a clear problem, misunderstood issue basics, unclear consequences, lack of data, and lack of both compelling images and a story that can be easily interpreted by the media. Second, statelessness currently lacks widely-recognized global solutions, which impedes the issue’s potential for change. “I think it’s a hard issue to approach in a generic kind of way. Statelessness covers a lot of different situations,” explained an interview respondent. “The more concrete and focused, and the more achievable your goal becomes, [the better]. With statelessness, this is especially the case.” Third, lack of political will for eliminating statelessness serves as a major obstacle in the process of issue emergence, and this lack occurs for a number of reasons. Critics worry that the issue is fundamentally tied to the delicate issue of state sovereignty, and vulnerabilities for stateless populations limit grassroots organizing and community feedback. Many organizers assess issues in a “hierarchy of needs” and do not rank statelessness as a top priority in relation to other human rights and humanitarian problems.

               Thankfully, statelessness also possesses a number of strengths for eventual issue emergence. It offers organizations possibilities for filling gaps and creating niches, and it may appeal to some supporters because it connects to other social problems and results in long-term rights violations. Statelessness fits with a number of organizational identities, including NGOs focused on human rights and refugees, and there are already dedicated anti-statelessness advocates located within several NGOs. Characteristics related to the overall political environment – including statelessness’ potential fit with emerging needs and trends, as well as its ties to current political situations – may also benefit issue organizers. Lastly, powerful narratives and images from stateless communities could inspire support, as well as fit with media trends and technologies. Although anti-statelessness mobilization has been limited so far, these strengths help explain why organizers have achieved partial, limited emergence within the international community.

               It is imperative that organizers build on statelessness’ existing strengths and overcome obstacles to its successful issue emergence. My recommendations include:

·        Framing and information sharing – Formulate two levels of framing and information sharing; one focused on reaching members of the general public and another targeted at the elite ranks of policymakers, academics, and advocates.

·        Operationalize conventions – Organizers must build on existing legal frameworks (particularly the 1954 and 1961 statelessness conventions) to implement a decisive global “plan of action” for eliminating statelessness. This will require information sharing, as well as complementing international frameworks with local research, problem-solving, and advocacy.

·        Strategic leadership – Seek out leadership within state governments and international organizations.

·        Provide educational opportunities – Because many stateless individuals are not fully aware of their rights to nationality, educational programs must outline this fundamental information in understandable ways.

·        Make grassroots mobilization feasible – Increased grassroots organizing among stateless populations is necessary for increasing political will, yet stateless individuals represent an inherently weak constituency. NGOs may help spur grassroots activism by offering partnerships that provide some level of local participation.

               To read more about my work on issue emergence and its implications for statelessness, please see my recent publications in Forced Migration Review ( and Human Rights Review (“’A Forgotten Human Rights Crisis’: Statelessness and Issue (Non) Emergence,” available online and forthcoming in print).
Lindsey Kingston – Director, Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies at Webster University


Friday, 3 May 2013

Introducing… Ivan Kochovski, intern assisting with research on nationality and statelessness in the MENA region

As I have been a part of the Statelessness Programme for a couple of months now, it is time to introduce myself and the work I have been doing at the Programme. My name is Ivan Kochovski and I am a LLM candidate at Tilburg University following the International and European Public Law programme with a specialisation in International Law and Human Rights. As of October 2012 I am an intern at the Statelessness Programme working on the “Nationality and Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa Project” (MENA Project).

Supervised by both Dr. Van Waas and Ms. Albarazi, I am working on compiling fact-sheets on the situation of statelessness and nationality in each of the MENA countries using country reports prepared by local experts. Recently, I have also been working on a report examining the manner in which the issue of gender discrimination in terms of nationality has been dealt with for the MENA countries at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) - the first universal review process examining all human rights questions in every UN country.

Statelessness is not an easy topic to get involved with. This is not to say that it is extremely difficult, but it is challenging nevertheless. While discussing some of the misconceptions I had about statelessness with my supervisors and colleagues and working on the MENA region, I realized that statelessness is not simply a problem of badly drafted nationality laws or inaccessible nationality procedures that rendered certain people without a nationality. Some of its main causes lie deeply rooted in the past and present political power relations within the countries and the region. The Bidoon in the Gulf Region, the Kurds in Syria, and the Palestinians in the Levant are just some of the groups that have been left stateless due to specific political reasons. This does not mean that the nationality laws of the MENA countries are not deeply problematic or that there aren’t issues with the procedures, but rather that the causes of statelessness are a combination of both legislative and political factors.

For instance, Jordan has a gendered nationality law and does not allow women to transfer their nationality to their children or spouses. Even though such discriminatory legislation can be seen as a purely legal matter, the issue becomes more complex with the fact that there are many Jordanian women married to non-nationals and the country is host to a large stateless Palestinian population. One of the reasons the Jordanian leadership has been reluctant to amend the nationality law, to allow women to pass on their nationality, has been the fear that allowing such a large number of non-nationals to acquire citizenship will create a shift in the demographics and the political constituency, possibly leading to unforeseeable political turmoil. Leaving aside politics for a moment, one must not forget the predicament of the stateless. The recent research of Ms. Albarazi in Jordan showed that many of the stateless in Jordan live in conditions of extreme poverty with no access to healthcare and with no prospects of meaningful education or employment. The discriminatory provisions do not create only problems for the women and their spouses, but perhaps most worryingly for their children. Some of the interviewed women have indicated that their children have no future. The only way out of that situation for the girls is to marry a national and acquire his citizenship. The boys, who have no such possibility of regularizing their status, often drift between illegal jobs and are strongly discouraged by their parents from marrying or having children because that will create only further problems as they will not be able to provide for their family and will transfer the same predicament to the future generations.

Going back to the influence of politics on the issue of statelessness, perhaps the most prominent example in recent years of how nationality can be used as a strong political tool is the 2011 decree issued by Al-Asad’s government allowing a portion of the stateless Syrian Kurds to acquire citizenship. In the 1960’s as part of its Arabization policies the Baath government denationalized more than 20 percent of the Kurdish population. After the civil war broke out in early 2011, the government, in order to gain the support of the Kurdish population adopted a decree that would allow more than half of the 300 000 stateless Kurds to acquire a citizenship. Even though there is limited information on whether this procedure has been implemented and perhaps statelessness is not the top priority in Syria at the moment taking into account the heinous atrocities being committed there, the 2011 decree is one of the clearest examples of how nationality can and is being used for political gains by governments. Syria’s nationality laws are also discriminatory towards women and there are reportedly more than 100,000 women married to non-nationals. As was the case with Jordan, one can see that the issue here is not purely political or purely legal. The Syrian government has also feared that granting more than 100,000 men married to Syrian women and their children nationality might cause a shift in the political dynamics of the state. As in Jordan, the stateless in Syria have lived in dire conditions for years and since the escalation of the violence the situation has grown worse.

There are many more such examples both from the MENA region and other regions in the world. The Nubians in Kenya, the non-citizens in Latvia, the Roma in the Balkans, the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Haitians in the Dominican Republic are just some of the groups in other parts of the world whose condition has been created due to both political and legal factors and continues to be detrimental due to both political reluctance to solve the issue and a lack of appropriate legal and humanitarian protection.

But what does this all mean in terms of solving the issue? Where do we find a solution? Do we look for a single solution or do we search for solutions in all aspects of the problem that would require more time? Given the limited resources, should one focus on the humanitarian side of the issue by trying to eliminate the extreme poverty and dire living conditions rampant among these populations or focus on pressuring states to live up to their human rights obligations and provide protection for these groups? Should short term goals, such as providing immediate humanitarian assistance, or long term goals, such as pressuring states to adopt legislation that would provide safeguards against statelessness, be a priority? Should the focus be on reminding the international community of its responsibility towards protecting stateless individuals? Or maybe even lobbing for the adoption of more effective measures in dealing with statelessness on the international legal and political level?

I do not have the answers to all of these questions. However I do think that in order to deal with the problem effectively the focus should be placed on all factors rather than just one. Even though this might sound too optimistic, the complex nature of the issue of statelessness necessitates a more comprehensive approach that would deal with the various factors on the local, national and international level. Exploring some of these specific factors and possible solutions to statelessness would require a different blog post or a more elaborate study. Nevertheless, by working on the MENA region both through the fact sheets and the report on how the UPR procedure has death with the issue of gender discrimination and nationality I continue to discover and grow to understand the specific aspects of the issue of statelessness in the MENA.

Ivan Kochovski, Statelessness Programme intern

GUEST POST: Is nationality always relevant? – Reflections on time spent with a Lahu Community in Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand is a hauntingly beautiful mountainous region, rich in tourism, agriculture and biodiversity.  One draw for visitors is their curiosity in experiencing the culture of remote hill tribe communities.  This does bring interest in the tribes’ lives and some wealth to the area, however attention to their precarious political, social, cultural and economic situation is superficial, tour operators can lack transparency and communities are often made into a spectacle.  The real issues affecting the hill tribe communities, such as statelessness, often fail to be highlighted.  Whilst recently travelling in northern Thailand I wished to visit hill tribe communities to discuss first-hand their opinions about and experiences of statelessness. Thus, this blog piece is a collection of my own reflections after spending time with a Lahu community close to Mae Hong Son.

The Lahu are just one of the approximately twenty ethnic groups classed as hill tribes in northern Thailand. Many originate from Burma, Laos and China and are also spread across these countries.  As of January 2012 an estimated 500,000 people in Thailand still lacked citizenship despite efforts by the Government, NGO’s and the UN to help hill tribe and rural communities to attain nationality. See an earlier Statelessness Programme blog post for more background on this population.  Consequently, the hill tribe communities can experience, inter alia, difficulties accessing health care and education, human trafficking, restrictions on movement and forced relocation.  In the case of the stateless hill tribe communities social exclusion from wider Thai society is heightened by the fact they live in remote forest areas, are nomadic and survive by subsistence farming which is dependent on the environment in which they live. 

Preservation of their traditional way of life whilst utilising certain positive aspects of living in developed Thailand is a big challenge for the Lahu.  Included in the dilemma of adjusting to modern life is the acquisition of Thai nationality, participatory citizenship and whether these are necessary or not.  Whilst nationality for all is commonly seen as desirable, is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is often reiterated as the “right to have rights”, my experience with the Lahu lead me to play devil’s advocate and to question whether nationality is always relevant?  The catalyst for this was the responses given by Lahu persons when asked about nationality and statelessness.

Thai law does not preclude ethnic minorities from attaining citizenship, however a number of loopholes and impracticalities in gaining nationality results in statelessness for those who, for example, are not registered at birth, cannot prove where they come from or cannot afford administrative fees.  This makes the task of gaining nationality arduous for the hill tribe communities who may see money and time invested in obtaining nationality better spent on improving living conditions, farming techniques and cultural preservation.  Whilst citizenship is often the key to obtaining the vote, land ownership, education and healthcare, those who are nomadic subsistence farmers may rarely come into contact with a society where administrative authorities, schools or hospitals exist, instead using the support network of their communities to provide these functions.  Furthermore, when hill tribe people do come into contact with the authorities, discrimination may result in skepticism about intentions and cause avoidance in seeking assistance.  For example, cases of forcible eviction (where the authorities seek out the hill tribes) can create distrust.

When talking, some Lahu people were not aware of or did not understand statelessness or nationality.  Instead they discussed their status and social inclusion only in relation to the communities in which they live.  For them lack of identity as a result of statelessness was not an imminent worry as they focused solely on their multifaceted roles within the hill tribe, for example as Chief, hunter or wife.  This could demonstrate that hill tribe society compensates for or mitigates loss of legal rights due to de jure statelessness and creates a situation where hill tribe persons do not recognise their own statelessness. It also highlights the very Western concept of nationality, which may be undesirable to some hill tribe people who fear that gaining nationality may be a tacit form of accepting a new identity, their indoctrination into Thai society and cultural erosion.

The Lahu people I met did talk about the imbalance of power between their communities and the Government, one example being the restrictions imposed on their traditional farming techniques.  In an ideal world one could envisage a system where indigenous groups have an autonomous status in society whilst individuals retain both a recognised membership of their communities and the nationality of the state in which they live.  Both formal bonds would be equal so as to prevent a hierarchy between national citizenship and community membership.   This way the hill tribes could seek to maintain their identity whilst benefiting from rights which derive from Thai nationality.  However in reality it is unlikely that the Thai state is willing and complicated administrative logistics would have to be overcome in order to allow such a system.

For now it is submitted that nationality may not be relevant at a local community level for the hill tribes, however gaining Thai citizenship will rectify statelessness whilst making a step towards remedying some of its symptoms, as well as gaining a stronger platform from which the hill tribes can advocate their human rights and protect their traditional way of life.  For this to be positive the communities should be educated about nationality in a way which they understand and is relevant to their lives, such as how they can seek to elect politicians who are favourable to minority rights.  In return the Thai Government, NGO’s and the UN should focus on training officials in easing access to nationality and social services for the communities, including mutual capacity building programmes where both hill tribes and others discuss and learn about how citizenship of the Thai state could be used to preserve culture and traditional ways of life.  Moreover more should be done to raise awareness among tourists to northern Thailand about the human rights issues affecting the hill tribes; this way visitors can act as a social watchdog. 

Ultimately hill tribe communities, like the Lahu, need an educated choice regarding Thai citizenship, to have some individual and community control over the process of naturalisation and to be reassured that gaining it will not necessarily be to the detriment of their traditional way of life.  After all if Thai nationality was gained by all hill tribe persons it would not necessarily matter if the benefits it conferred lay dormant, so long as hill tribe persons had the opportunity to take advantage of privileges stemming from nationality should they wish to do so.

Claire Balding, LL.M in Public International Law (Nottingham), Intern at the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials

The small Lahu community discussed were visited in their remote village from 2 to 4 February 2013 in the Mae Hong Son region of Thailand.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Contesting Cultures? Statelessness Programme intern Deirdre Brennan reflects on her research on statelessness in Thailand

Completing an internship is a mandatory component of my master’s programme and in November of last year I began my search for a position with an organisation working in the area of statelessness. My interest in statelessness began in 2011 when I interned at the human trafficking prevention non-governmental organisation DEPDC/GMS in northern Thailand. A large number of DEPDC/GMS’s target group are stateless hill tribe people, many of whom became, and still are, dear friends of mine. As is described in the series of short blogs dedicated to the situation of statelessness in Thailand, there are several impediments facing the 500,000 stateless people there. Personally, I was most taken aback by their restricted movement. Some of the people attending DEPDC/GMS had never left the immediate area, and the multiple check-points scattered along the surrounding roads ensure that it stays that way. The idea that friends of mine live with this kind of uncontrollable claustrophobia has stuck with me ever since. And so, here I am, thrilled to be part of a crucial project that aims to map the link between human trafficking and statelessness. I was also a culprit of regurgitating this so-called link without acknowledging that it had not been methodologically confirmed. While we eagerly await the findings of the surveys being conducted in northern Thailand, I have been busy transcribing interviews and composing a discussion note on recommendations for a planned intervention strategy that is due to be piloted this summer.
Already, much of the information garnered through interviews has got our minds grappling with the multifaceted relationship between human trafficking and statelessness, and with the complexities of an ever-changing human trafficking modus operandi. As with many research projects, new and previously unaccounted pieces of information arise as the research kicks into full swing. The cultural aspect was one piece of the puzzle not wholly taken into consideration before the Thailand Project team took off to the field. Several key informants flagged aspects of Thai culture as potential catalysts to the causes of human trafficking. The interviewees’ reflection on the Thai custom known as ‘bun khun’ caught my attention. Simply put ‘bun khun’ is a customary belief that children should give back to their parents or respected elders from the ages of twelve and upward. Out of obligation and respect for parents for giving their child life and raising them, the child should “make merit” to their parents. For boys this usually means entering monkhood for a duration of time. Due to Buddhism’s female-exclusionary traditions a girl cannot make merit in this way and her obligation of ‘bun khun’ is commonly redeemed through monetary means. How can stateless women, or girls, meet this expectation when formal channels to employment are inaccessible? I want to investigate this from the standpoint of our target group; is this practise still prevalent and how is it affecting the lives of stateless women in northern Thailand?
At the same time, how to work in a developing country context as a non-native has become a fervent interest of mine since beginning a Masters degree in Women’s Studies. Prior to the Masters programme I had completed a Bachelor degree in International Development and Food Policy. Transitioning from a social science programme to studying within the humanities has challenged me to engage in a new way of critical thinking. My overriding concerns lie with how development organisations can avoid accusations of modern-day imperialism or Westernization. Furthermore, what approach does one use to address and represent the subordination of women in different cultural contexts in a world where ‘female emancipation’ is a miscellaneous definition? Suggesting women should adhere to a specific level of liberation can fall subject to relativistic linking of differences. Alternatively, feminist scholars have argued that “respecting cultural difference” is a euphemism for denying women’s rights. Is there a ‘happy medium’ between these polar positions?
My Masters thesis aims to address the cultural component of Thailand Project’s planned intervention strategy. I want to employ a feminist lens to examine how we can take cultural and gender expectations into account during the development of this intervention strategy. Adding feminist theory to this development means engaging stateless women’s situated knowledge and being cognisant of issues of patriarchy, power and difference. To develop a deeper understanding of women’s lived experiences and how they relate to their social structures I am conducting interviews with women in Thailand via Skype. So far all I can say is I’m unsure whether it is ‘bun khun’ or, as one interviewee described it, “the new culture” of modernisation that is more of a concern for stateless women in northern Thailand. Nonetheless this makes for an intriguing study in a topic I continue to be passionate about, and a true challenge to my struggle with contesting cultures.
Deirdre Brennan, Statelessness Programme Intern