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statelessness in Southern Africa
Frederik Ngubane was
born in South Africa to South African parents 22 years ago but,
lacking any proof of his origins or nationality, he lives a shadowy,
marginal existence. He cannot travel, study or secure formal employment
and has lost count of how many times he has been arrested for being
Not considered a national
by South Africa or by Kenya or Uganda - the two countries where
he grew up - Ngubane is stateless, a predicament he shares with
an estimated 12 million people worldwide, according to the UN Refugee
Agency (UNHCR), which is mandated with trying to reduce that figure.
a host of rights that stateless individuals cannot access, from
education and healthcare to the ability to register a marriage or
a birth. As a result, statelessness is often passed from one generation
to the next.
As early as 1954, the
international community, under the auspices of the UN, adopted the
Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defined
who is a stateless person and established a framework for their
international protection. A second international convention adopted
in 1961 focused on reducing cases of statelessness], primarily by
requiring participating states to grant citizenship to children
born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless. However,
the majority of countries in Africa have not ratified either convention
(see map), leaving them under no obligation to pass national legislation
that would address the issue.
An individual can end
up stateless for a variety of reasons. Orphans whose births were
not registered before their parents died and unaccompanied child
migrants who arrive in a foreign country without documents are particularly
vulnerable. Laws still in place in several African countries, including
Malawi and Madagascar, that prevent married women from passing nationality
to their children also contribute to the problem.
According to Sergio
Calle-Norena, deputy regional representative for UNHCR, laws allowing
for only one nationality and the denial of citizenship to certain
groups are the main causes of statelessness in the Southern Africa
In Zimbabwe, for example,
following an amendment to the citizenship act passed in 2001, individuals
with dual nationality were given six months to renounce their foreign
citizenship or lose their Zimbabwean nationality. The new law affected
countless Zimbabweans whose parents had migrated to the country
from Zambia, Mozambique or Malawi at a time when white-owned farms
and mines offered plentiful employment. Most did not, in fact, hold
citizenship in their parents' countries, making it impossible
for them to renounce it, while many were simply unaware of the new
law, which was widely viewed as a means for the ruling ZANU-PF party
to disenfranchise opposition supporters.
"I think they
didn't want people like me to vote," said Promise*,
who was born and raised in Harare, the capital, to a Malawian father
and a mother with Mozambican parentage. "Most people in high-density
areas of Harare are in the same situation, and most are anti-Zanu-PF."
The new law stripped
both Promise and her mother of their citizenship. They now live
in South Africa, where the asylum-seeker system offers them a temporary
and precarious form of documentation.
"I just kept renewing
my asylum-seeker permit every six months, but I decided to take
action last year," said Promise, who is in her early twenties.
"I was tired of having no nationality. It was limiting my
opportunities. Most universities need a study permit, and I want
to study law."
Promise approached Lawyers
for Human Rights (LHR), a South African NGO that, with funding from
UNHCR, has been running a project to provide legal services to stateless
individuals since 2011. UNHCR is also funding the international
faith-based NGO Caritas to run a similar project in Mozambique,
another country with a large burden of statelessness following years
of civil war that displaced hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
South Africa has pledged
to sign and ratify the two UN conventions on statelessness by the
end of 2013, and both LHR and UNHCR are advocating for this pledge
to be honoured and for relevant legislation to be established. In
the meantime, LHR is assisting stateless clients on a case-by-case
Of the 736 stateless
clients that LHR helped in 2012, over a third were born in Zimbabwe;
many of them lost their nationality like Promise.
Another 150 were born
in South Africa but are struggling to access nationality in any
country. Jessica George, a legal counsellor with LHR, explained
that this group of stateless individuals does not qualify for asylum,
and they have no way to access legal immigration status other than
through an exemption for permanent residence, a process that allows
the Home Affairs Minister to grant permanent residency to foreigners
with special circumstances.
However, exemption applicants
can wait up to three years for a decision. "In the meantime,
they're given no temporary permit, so they're subject
to detention, which tends to be prolonged because they can't
be deported," said George.
Ngubane spent three
months at Lindela Repatriation Centre, South Africa's largest
holding facility for undocumented migrants awaiting deportation,
after being arrested at a Home Affairs Department office while trying
to replace a lost birth certificate. The document was his only proof
of South African nationality; he had lost both his parents and all
contact with his South African relatives during his time in Kenya
With help from LHR,
Ngubane has applied for a permanent residency exemption, but so
far he has received no response. In fact, according to George, only
one of LHR's stateless clients has received a decision on
permanent residency exemption in the past two years, and it was
"I think some
training is required in addition to law reform, because it's
clear there's a misunderstanding about who is a stateless
person," said George. "Currently there are no guidelines
in the law on how to identify a stateless person and what rights
they're entitled to."
In cases where a client
has a claim to foreign nationality, LHR approaches the country's
embassy for assistance securing citizenship. However, few embassies
or consulates provide such services, and for most stateless people,
travelling to the country where they have a nationality claim is
unaffordable and unfeasible given their lack of travel documents.
"One of the easiest
ways to prevent statelessness would be if consulates provided certain
services, so people wouldn't have to leave South Africa in
order to access their citizenship," said George.
Calle-Norena of UNHCR
says that, besides ratifying the two conventions on statelessness,
addressing the problem requires political will. He noted, for example,
that South Africa's Citizenship Act grants nationality to
any child born in the country who would otherwise be stateless,
but that non-nationals without documents struggled to register their
children's births. "There should be a mechanism that
allows [the law] to be applied, but in practice this is not yet
operational," he told IRIN.
Through a combination
of luck and persistence, Promise has succeeded in convincing the
Malawian authorities to grant her citizenship. She has never been
to Malawi but plans to move there as soon as she receives her passport.
Ngubane says he has
tried applying for Kenyan citizenship, "but the embassy said
there's no way they can help me."
Numerous visits to home
affairs offices in several provinces have not yielded any results,
other than several attempts by corrupt officials to solicit bribes
in return for a birth certificate or refugee status.
"If you don't
have money, you suffer," he said.
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