Statelessness: Falling through the cracks in southern Africa

News Stories, 6 October 2011

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Rosalind Elphick, a lawyer with UNHCR's statelessness project in Musina, South Africa, counsels Luwizhi on developments relating to his case.

MUSINA, South Africa, October 6 (UNHCR) Luwizhi has been on a paper chase for the last four years not as a student pursuing higher education, but as someone seeking documents while bouncing between being an asylum-seeker, migrant worker and stateless person.

Luwizhi was born in 1975 to a Zambian father and a Malawian mother who had met and married in Zimbabwe as migrant workers decades ago. He grew up in Zimbabwe and had a Zimbabwean identity card with the word "citizen" stamped on it. For a while, he worked at a mine in Mashonaland East province and headed the worker's committee.

A charismatic speaker, he was courted by two political parties to increase grassroots support ahead of the 2008 elections. But the attention soon turned ugly, with one party following and visiting him at odd hours.

In mid-2007, he fled to his mother's village south of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. When he arrived, she told him a group of men had come to the homestead looking for him. A quick description confirmed that these were the same men who had sought him out the night before at his work place. He then escaped to Musina, South Africa's northernmost border town with Zimbabwe, crossing illegally in the dead of night.

As an asylum-seeker in South Africa, Luwizhi worked as a gardener. In 2010, the South African government started the Zimbabwe Documentation Project to regularize the status of thousands of qualifying Zimbabwean migrants. It also allowed asylum-seekers to change their status and obtain work, business or study permits valid for four years.

Luwizhi's employer insisted that all his workers change their status and obtain work permits. Luwizhi didn't argue with this as he saw it as a chance to explore better job opportunities in the mines surrounding Musina. Soon after, he decided to apply for a passport with the Zimbabwean authorities in South Africa.

"I got the shock of my life when they told me that I ceased to be a Zimbabwean citizen in 2002, with the implementation of the 2001 Citizenship of Zimbabwe Amendment Act," he said in disbelief. The law forbids dual citizenship in Zimbabwe and requires people with a claim to foreign citizenship even if they are not aware of it to renounce it in order to keep their Zimbabwean status.

"The law on citizenship in Zimbabwe has become increasingly restrictive," said Rosalind Elphick, a lawyer working in Musina for UNHCR's partner, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), on the agency's regional statelessness project. "The only claim Luwizhi has is that he was born on the territory. In Zimbabwe, he doesn't qualify at all for citizenship because the Constitution requires him to have at least one blood relative who is Zimbabwean as a parent or grandparent and he has neither."

Luwizhi lamented, "So who am I? Where do I belong, because Zimbabwe is the only country I have ever known as home? That my parents were from other countries is meaningless because I know of no family in Zambia or Malawi."

By this time he had also surrendered his asylum application, rendering him undocumented and stateless in South Africa. He could have been arrested for breaking immigration laws, but luckily his asylum-seeker status was reissued after LHR appealed to the Musina Refugee Reception Office.

South Africa is not party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation appears to have taken an interest in the issue.

'They have given LHR an audience on the matter and have really been cooperative, interested in the statistics we have and wanting to hear our stories," said Elphick. "Separately, we've managed to uncover several groups of people who are stateless or at risk of becoming stateless in this country."

LHR is working hard to present its findings to South Africa's Department of Home Affairs, the ministry charged with managing immigration as well as handling refugees and asylum-seekers.

In the meantime, Luwizhi is grateful that he can approach LHR for counselling and advice. "They're really interested in my situation and I have every confidence that somewhere along the line, they will help me overcome this problem," he said.

By Pumla Rulashe
In Musina, South Africa

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

State Action on Statelessness

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

#IBELONG

IBELONG
Sign and share our open letter to end statelessness in ten years.

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.

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 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.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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

#IBELONG: End Statelessness NowPlay video

#IBELONG: End Statelessness Now

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.