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

Telling the Human Story, 5 September 2011

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
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.

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

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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

Viet Nam: Without a CountryPlay video

Viet Nam: Without a Country

In the 1970s, thousands of people fled to Viet Nam to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Some of those who stayed in places Like Ho Chi Minh City became stateless.

UNHCR country pages

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

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

Stateless People

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

State Action on Statelessness

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

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 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

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Statelessness: A Message from UNHCRPlay video

Statelessness: A Message from UNHCR

An address from UNHCR's Director of International Protection Volker Türk to mark International Human Rights Day and the launch of a new report on Statelessness in the United States.
UNHCR : Breakthrough on StatelessnessPlay video

UNHCR : Breakthrough on Statelessness

UNHCR's ministerial conference in Geneva takes a great step forward in resolving the issue of statelessness. On the sidelines of the meeting, Serbia and Turkmenistan acceded to the statelessness conventions.
Viet Nam: Without a CountryPlay video

Viet Nam: Without a Country

In the 1970s, thousands of people fled to Viet Nam to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Some of those who stayed in places Like Ho Chi Minh City became stateless.