Statelessness: Former refugees win citizenship, and now dream of home ownership

News Stories, 15 September 2011

© UNHCR/K. McKinsey
Nguyen The Tai (right) and his sister Le Ngoc Hai outside their mother's house near Viet Nam's Ho Chi Minh City. The ex-refugees from Cambodia were stateless until they received Vietnamese citizenship last year.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Viet Nam, September 15 (UNHCR) When the coconut groves of this city's Thu Duc district became a refugee camp nearly 30 years ago, the area was so remote it was a five-hour commute from the centre by rowboat.

Now called District Nine, today it's one of the most fashionable areas of the booming southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where wealthy business people build villas and fanciful walled castles, which they reach in less than an hour over bridges and wide highways.

Luxury property has always been out of the reach of Nguyen The Tai, who fled Cambodia and came here as a refugee when he was just 11, and has been stateless all his life. In fact, he never even dreamed of buying the small cinder-block row house built by UNHCR where he lives with his 75-year-old mother.

But his dreams expanded exponentially after he finally got Vietnamese citizenship last year, along with some 2,300 other former stateless Cambodians. Thanks to UNHCR's efforts, he now has a chance to buy his rented house from the local authorities at just two per cent of the market price.

"I would be very happy to be the owner of this house," the cheerful 46-year-old says, romping with his dog in his small garden. "In Vietnamese there is a proverb, 'settlement before career'."

Not that he's had much of a career either. Because he was stateless, Tai he took the Vietnamese name when he got his citizenship could only work as an unskilled labourer at perhaps half the going rate, despite being a skilled electrician. He could not get bonded, obtain an identity card, or legally marry his common-law wife of nine years.

His older sister, now called Le Ngoc Hai, has also paid a life-long price for their statelessness, lingering fall-out from the Pol Pot years in Cambodia. The family fled in 1975 after their father, a former Cambodian military officer, was attacked with an axe by Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge. He died of his injuries after reaching Viet Nam.

Despite speaking fluent French, the closest Hai has come to using it professionally was while working as an underpaid cook for a Frenchman in Ho Chi Minh City for the last 15 years.

In the 1980s, as they saw thousands of other refugees resettled abroad, the family originally hoped they would get to join relatives in France. A change in policies shattered that dream, and by the mid-1990s, their focus shifted to trying to get citizenship in their adopted home, where they had learned the language and customs. But they were caught in a legal limbo, because Viet Nam required them to relinquish their Cambodian citizenship, and Cambodia had renounced them.

The aspirations of all the stateless refugees in this settlement plummeted. "I just had one simple hope: that when I died I could get a death certificate, to prove that I ever existed," said one of the family's neighbours in the row of modest townhouses built by UNHCR and later handed over to municipal authorities.

Hai, the mother of two teenagers, feels a tinge of sadness she had to wait 35 years to become a citizen, but she and her brother are still optimistic about the future.

"I am not very young, but I am not very old," the 51-year-old says, "so I can still hope my life can change because of my new nationality."

Her brother adds with a smile: "Physically I am strong, stronger than young people, so now I hope I can work in my real profession." And buy that house, of course.

By Kitty McKinsey

In District Nine, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

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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.

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 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 and Women

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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