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