Viet Nam ends stateless limbo for 2,300 former Cambodians

News Stories, 19 July 2010

Some of the former Cambodian refugees at Friday's ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City proudly hold their citizenship certificates.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Viet Nam, July 19 (UNHCR) In a joyous citizenship ceremony, Viet Nam took a ground-breaking step towards closing the last chapter in a 35-year-long statelessness saga for some 2,300 former Cambodians.

"I'm so happy," said a beaming Luong Ve, 77, the oldest among 287 former refugees to receive a Vietnamese naturalization certificate last Friday, a valuable document that will now entitle him to a huge number of rights others take for granted.

It is the culmination of UNHCR's efforts, together with the Vietnamese government, to resolve one of the lingering legacies of Cambodia's bloody 1970-75 Pol Pot regime. The 2,357 former Cambodians who will receive citizenship had fled in 1975 to Viet Nam, where they learned the language and fully integrated into their new country.

The 287 naturalized on Friday in the southern Vietnamese city formerly known as Saigon, live in what used to be two refugee camps set up by UNHCR in 1980. The rest are on track to get their papers by the end of this year.

"This sets an excellent example in the region for resolving statelessness and is a great way to start commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness," said Thomas Vargas, UNHCR's regional protection adviser, who attended the ceremony. He encouraged other Asian countries to take a lead from Viet Nam in finding solutions for statelessness.

Last year, Viet Nam also enacted a new law to plug gaps that had left thousands of women stateless after they married and divorced foreign men.

The valuable new citizenship documents handed out on a flag-draped stage at Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Justice will confer the all-important family registration book and ID card that will open the door to health and social insurance, buying a house, higher education and better jobs.

Ho Manh Cong, whose family came to Viet Nam in 1975, was born in Ho Chi Minh City 28 years ago but has never even been able to own a motorbike because he is not a citizen.

"Not having Vietnamese citizenship has created a lot of troubles in my daily life," he said. "I've been working for a company for more than five years but still cannot enjoy social insurance."

For Vu Anh Son, head of UNHCR's operations in Viet Nam, the ceremony was nearly as emotional as for the 287 receiving their certificates.

"I have known most of these people for 10 years," he said. "All they wanted was for UNHCR to help them obtain legal status so that they could live in Viet Nam permanently because there was no other solution that would give them a good future."

"This is what I have been working on with the government of Viet Nam for five years. I'm so thrilled to share the happiness with all the people with citizen certificates in their hands."




UNHCR country pages

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

Local Integration

Integration of refugees in the host community allows recipients to live in dignity and peace.

Integration Initiatives: Supporting Next Steps

An inventory of opportunities and needs in the integration of resettled refugees

Stateless People

A tough task determining the true number of stateless people

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

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

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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