Statelessness: Giving up a beloved name and lifetime limbo for citizenship

Viet Nam and UNHCR have worked together to end 35 years of suffering for some of Pol Pot's last victims – stateless former Cambodian refugees.

Tran Hoang Phuc and his wife display their wheel power in Cu Chi, Viet Nam. Formerly stateless, he could not legally buy a motorbike until he became a Vietnamese citizen recently.  © UNHCR/K.McKinsey

CU CHI, Viet Nam, September 5 (UNHCR) - Tran Hoang Phuc is proud of his name, one he chose himself. It means "golden happiness" in Vietnamese.

After more than 35 years in a Kafkaesque stateless limbo, the former Cambodian refugee gave up his birth name and selected a distinctly Vietnamese name as a condition of acquiring citizenship in Viet Nam, his home since 1975. It did indeed symbolize a happy ending for some of the very last victims of the anarchy unleashed by Cambodian dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s.

His original name, Sophalay De Monteiro, carried with it a proud ancestry - Portuguese missionaries to Cambodia in the 18th century - but also made him stand out in his adopted homeland every day of those 35 years.

"Giving it up was a small price to pay for finally getting Vietnamese citizenship," he told UNHCR, eagerly displaying his new papers, including the all-important family book, which regulates all dealings between citizens and the government in Viet Nam.

"This is very important because it means we can have ID cards," said Phuc, 50. "We can do many things. I can now get a passport and travel outside the country."

It means he can do much more basic things as well - such as buy a motorbike. In a country where almost every family owns a motorbike, thousands of stateless former Cambodian refugees like Phuc could not even legally buy this common form of transportation.

Phuc married a Vietnamese woman 32 years ago, soon after he came to the country. What pained him the most was watching their two children suffer because they were also stateless due to his lack of legal status.

Over the past few years, UNHCR has worked with Viet Nam to remove decades-old bureaucratic obstacles and enable this small group of former refugees - the last of hundreds of thousands who sought refuge in Viet Nam in the 1970s - to get citizenship.

Largely unnoticed, Viet Nam has become a leader in Asia and the world in ending and preventing statelessness.

Most of the Cambodian refugees resettled or went home by the early 1990s, but a few thousand, like Phuc, were disowned by Cambodia. Unable to return, they became stateless.

"If we'd had citizenship when we arrived in Vietnam, I could have done more for my children, earned more," Phuc says, the pain clearly showing in his face. "My children should have had a much better life, but the family ended up going backwards instead of forwards.

"I didn't realize that their lives would be very difficult because they did not have a nationality. When we got to Viet Nam they had nothing, and back then we didn't realize that citizenship would be important if they wanted any benefits in society."

His daughter Sheila, a star student, had to pass up a scholarship in Japan. His son, Kostal, recalls being excluded from the Communist youth movement as a small schoolboy, and later found even his courtship prospects blocked.

"Finally I met a girl I loved and her parents didn't care about the ID card, but we couldn't legally marry because I didn't have the ID card," says Kostal De Monteiro, 29. He eventually got citizenship through his Vietnamese mother, so was able to keep his original name.

Phuc felt he could never be fully accepted as long as he was stateless, despite learning Vietnamese fluently and integrating well into this community known to tourists for the elaborate system of tunnels that the Viet Cong used to evade the U.S. Army during the war in the 1960s and 1970s.

These days life is brighter for the whole family. Phuc, one of some 2,300 former Cambodians who received citizenship in 2010 or who are on track to do so, was a respected leader of refugees in this community and is still advising his fellow new citizens on the rights their new status confers.

At 50, he's no longer planning much for his own future, but rejoicing in his children's prospects. His daughter hopes to study in France now that she has citizenship. His son has been promoted to senior accountant, gotten a raise, can buy property, and is being offered business trips abroad now that he can get a passport.

"The differences come down to who has a nationality and who is stateless," says Phuc. People who have always had citizenship, identity cards and passports seldom consider their value, he said. But those without them know all too well how valuable a legal identity is.

"I'm very, very happy," he said. "My children will have much, much brighter futures because of the benefits of being Vietnamese, so they can enjoy their lives."

By Kitty McKinsey
In Cu Chi, Viet Nam

  • New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, whose name means "Golden Happiness", takes his wife to the local market on his motorbike in Cu Chi, Viet Nam. During the 35 years the former Cambodian refugee was stateless, he could not legally buy a
motorbike.
    New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, whose name means "Golden Happiness", takes his wife to the local market on his motorbike in Cu Chi, Viet Nam. During the 35 years the former Cambodian refugee was stateless, he could not legally buy a motorbike. © UNHCR/K.McKinsey/December 2010
  • Former Cambodian refugee Tran Hoang Phuc shows off his family registration book, the key to opening the door to all rights and opportunities in Viet Nam, such as health and social insurance, free education, bank loans and good jobs. Until July 2010, when he became a Vietnamese citizen after 35 years of statelessness, his name was Sophalay De Monteiro, a heritage of his Portuguese ancestors who went to Cambodia as missionaries in the 18th Century. He says giving up his unusual name – which always caused him problems in Viet Nam – was a small price to pay to gain a whole new world of rights. (Viet Nam required the former Cambodian refugees to take Vietnamese names.)
    Former Cambodian refugee Tran Hoang Phuc shows off his family registration book, the key to opening the door to all rights and opportunities in Viet Nam, such as health and social insurance, free education, bank loans and good jobs. Until July 2010, when he became a Vietnamese citizen after 35 years of statelessness, his name was Sophalay De Monteiro, a heritage of his Portuguese ancestors who went to Cambodia as missionaries in the 18th Century. He says giving up his unusual name – which always caused him problems in Viet Nam – was a small price to pay to gain a whole new world of rights. (Viet Nam required the former Cambodian refugees to take Vietnamese names.) © UNHCR/K.McKinsey/December 2010
  • New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, whose new name means "Golden Happiness", and his wife next to his motorbike in the southern town of Cu Chi. During the 35 years the former Cambodian refugee was stateless, he could not even legally buy a motorbike because he was not a citizen.
    New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, whose new name means "Golden Happiness", and his wife next to his motorbike in the southern town of Cu Chi. During the 35 years the former Cambodian refugee was stateless, he could not even legally buy a motorbike because he was not a citizen. © UNHCR/K.McKinsey/December 2010
  • New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, formerly stateless for 35 years, goes shopping in the market with his wife. He is surrounded by other formerly stateless people, who all got their Vietnamese citizenship in July 2010. They now have red "family books", the crucial document for all official transactions between citizens and the government in Viet Nam. But the new citizens are full of questions for him – a longtime refugee leader from Cambodia – about exactly what rights it confers.
    New Vietnamese citizen Tran Hoang Phuc, formerly stateless for 35 years, goes shopping in the market with his wife. He is surrounded by other formerly stateless people, who all got their Vietnamese citizenship in July 2010. They now have red "family books", the crucial document for all official transactions between citizens and the government in Viet Nam. But the new citizens are full of questions for him – a longtime refugee leader from Cambodia – about exactly what rights it confers. © UNHCR/K.McKinsey/December 2010
  • Nguyen The Tai (left) and his sister Le Ngoc Hai outside the home that the 46-year-old shares with his mother. The house was built by UNHCR on land that once formed part of a refugee camp on an island near southern Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City. Today, with the expansion of the booming city, the area is becoming the preserve of wealthy business people. This family of former Cambodian refugees have lived there since 1982, but they were stateless and never dreamed of one day owning it. Since receiving citizenship in July 2010 under Viet Nam's new law, Nguyen The Tai, who was just 11 when he came to Viet Nam, has been given the opportunity to buy the house. He says: "I would be very happy to be the owner of this house. In Vietnamese there is a proverb, 'settlement before career'."
    Nguyen The Tai (left) and his sister Le Ngoc Hai outside the home that the 46-year-old shares with his mother. The house was built by UNHCR on land that once formed part of a refugee camp on an island near southern Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City. Today, with the expansion of the booming city, the area is becoming the preserve of wealthy business people. This family of former Cambodian refugees have lived there since 1982, but they were stateless and never dreamed of one day owning it. Since receiving citizenship in July 2010 under Viet Nam's new law, Nguyen The Tai, who was just 11 when he came to Viet Nam, has been given the opportunity to buy the house. He says: "I would be very happy to be the owner of this house. In Vietnamese there is a proverb, 'settlement before career'." © UNHCR/K.McKinsey/December 2010
  • A ceremony granting Vietnamese citizenship to 287 former Cambodian stateless refugees organized by the Department of Justice in Ho Chi Minh City. The former Cambodian refugees have lived in southern Viet Nam for more than 30 years and most had only one dream – to become citizens.
    A ceremony granting Vietnamese citizenship to 287 former Cambodian stateless refugees organized by the Department of Justice in Ho Chi Minh City. The former Cambodian refugees have lived in southern Viet Nam for more than 30 years and most had only one dream – to become citizens. © UNHCR/N.Trung Chinh/July 2010
  • An official ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City granting Vietnamese citizenship to 287 former stateless refugees from Cambodia. Most of them have been living on the site of former UNHCR refugee camps near Ho Chi Minh City for more than 30 years. Tran Hoang Phuc (second from right with certificate) said Vietnamese citizenship would greatly change his life: "Now my family can benefit from social/health insurance, my children can go to universities, and we can own property like a motorbike, a house and much more."
    An official ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City granting Vietnamese citizenship to 287 former stateless refugees from Cambodia. Most of them have been living on the site of former UNHCR refugee camps near Ho Chi Minh City for more than 30 years. Tran Hoang Phuc (second from right with certificate) said Vietnamese citizenship would greatly change his life: "Now my family can benefit from social/health insurance, my children can go to universities, and we can own property like a motorbike, a house and much more." © UNHCR/N.Trung Chinh/July 2010
  • Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Phuong, 36, sorts out clothing as her mother Mai Thi Lieu, 58, looks on. She was stateless when this photo was taken at her mother's house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007, after her marriage to a Taiwanese man ended. She
said her husband abandoned her because she gave birth to two daughters instead of sons. She got her citizenship back through a 2009 Vietnamese nationality law.
    Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Phuong, 36, sorts out clothing as her mother Mai Thi Lieu, 58, looks on. She was stateless when this photo was taken at her mother's house in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007, after her marriage to a Taiwanese man ended. She said her husband abandoned her because she gave birth to two daughters instead of sons. She got her citizenship back through a 2009 Vietnamese nationality law. © UNHCR/C.Doan/January 2007
  • Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Diem Chi, 33 and her daughter Nguyen Lam Gia Lac at their house in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Chi married a Taiwanese man, but later divorced. When the photo was taken in 2007, she had neither Vietnamese nor Taiwanese citizenship. Since then she received Vietnamese citizenship.
    Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Diem Chi, 33 and her daughter Nguyen Lam Gia Lac at their house in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Chi married a Taiwanese man, but later divorced. When the photo was taken in 2007, she had neither Vietnamese nor Taiwanese citizenship. Since then she received Vietnamese citizenship. © UNHCR/C.Doan/January 2007