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Viet Nam sets the pace for Asia with new law to prevent statelessness

News Stories, 1 July 2009

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
At home in Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thi Phuong Loan says life is better now for her and her six-year-old daughter, Phan Nho Y, who soon will be able to start Grade One at a free state school.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Viet Nam, July 1 (UNHCR) Growing up in her native Viet Nam, Phan Thi Phuong Loan never gave a second's thought to the rights her citizenship conferred. Not, that is, until she married abroad, lost her citizenship, came back home and entered the twilight world of the stateless.

Loan, 40, is one of thousands of Vietnamese women who became stateless in the last 15 years when they married foreign men usually from Taiwan, South Korea or China almost always for economic reasons. In most cases they were compelled to give up their Vietnamese citizenship, but if the marriages collapsed, they ended up back in the country of their birth without any legal status.

On Wednesday, Viet Nam was set to enact a law that will keep women like Loan from falling into this trap in the future. In addition, Vietnamese authorities have been working hard over the last few years to help the stateless economic brides get their citizenship back.

Taiwan required such brides to renounce their Vietnamese citizenship to be naturalized there, but often the marriages failed before they could acquire the new nationality. The new law does not allow a Vietnamese person to renounce citizenship until the person has acquired another nationality, and also permits dual citizenship.

"I know about the new law," Loan says, sitting in her aunt's home over a sewing-machine shop. "I have been reading about it very carefully in the newspapers. It will be very helpful to a lot of women still in Taiwan. Many women there have a much worse life than I did."

Loan felt the pressure of being an "old maid" when she still hadn't found a husband at the age of 27, so she married an older Taiwanese man who promised her a ticket out of poverty.

The marriage foundered on economic woes, linguistic confusion, in-law problems and cramped living quarters. The final blow came when Loan gave birth to two daughters, not the sons her husband desperately wanted. As she tells it, he brought her back to Viet Nam to give birth the second time and then deserted her, leaving her stateless and adrift.

Between 1995 and 2007, some 144,000 Vietnamese women married foreigners, according to Vietnamese government statistics. An official survey in 2005 showed that about 10 percent of the women married in Taiwan got divorced within three years, almost all of them ending up stateless.

When Loan came back, she says she was offered several good jobs, including one as a nurse, but they all fell through because she no longer had Vietnamese citizenship. Her older daughter could not attend a free state school.

... the Vietnamese government has taken a look at unforeseen consequences of its nationality legislation and has taken action to address these gaps ... this demonstrates leadership in Asia.

Mark Manly, UNHCR Statelessness Unit

It took Loan more than two years of running from office to office to get citizenship for all three of them. It also cost her about US$1,000 to pay all the fees a hefty sum for someone who only makes US$10 a day as a cleaning lady.

But it was well worth it, she says in the crowded bedroom-cum-living room she shares with her daughters, now aged nine and six. "Now we are like other Vietnamese," she says. "We don't have any worries about our legal status. My children can go to state schools and we can buy social insurance and health insurance, which was not the case before. Now I can own a motorcycle."

Vu Anh Son, UNHCR's chief of mission in Viet Nam, worked closely with the government to make sure the UN refugee agency's concerns for resolving and preventing statelessness were reflected in the new nationality law. "I'm glad that Vietnamese women who marry abroad will never have to become stateless again," he says.

"Statelessness is incredibly traumatic and stateless people are at greater risk of exploitation and human rights abuse, so prevention is the best possible response," says Mark Manly, head of UNHCR's statelessness unit in Geneva.

"It's very clear the Vietnamese government has taken a look at unforeseen consequences of its nationality legislation and has taken action to address these gaps," Manly added. "This demonstrates leadership in Asia."

Even so, Loan feels that at 40 it may be too late to get her life back on track in a country she says prizes youth. "I wish there had been a law like this when I got married," she says tearfully. "Then I could have returned to Vietnam without any worries. I could have returned to my company and could be earning a much better income for myself and my children. Now it's difficult for me to get a job in a company because companies require younger workers with better education. Now I will just devote the rest of my life to my two children."

By Kitty McKinsey In Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

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Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

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Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

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