Stateless persons in the MENA
Statelessness continues to affect hundreds of thousands of families across the MENA region. UNHCR’s 2015 statistics of indicate that there are 374,237 recorded stateless persons in the region, which is a decrease of just under 70,000 from previous years. However, these figures present a significantly lower estimate, to what is likely to be the actual size of the stateless population in the region. Stateless Palestinians, who fall under UNRWA’s mandate, have not been included in this data. Moreover, stateless refugees are also not included in this figure. The impact this can have on statistics is significant, as conflict and instability have spread across the region over the last few years, displacing millions of persons and creating new risks for the emergence of statelessness.
Various historical factors have contributed to the prevalence of statelessness in the region today. Many stateless persons can trace their statelessness back to the formation of States, which mostly occurred with the end of colonisation. When borders were drawn up by the colonial powers, new states were faced with the immediate task of defining who their citizens were. In Kuwait for example—which has a reported stateless population of 93,000 persons—the genesis of statelessness was the failure to comprehensively identify and register all persons who should have been recognised as citizens during the post-colonial period of state formation. Similarly in Lebanon, a census that took place in the 1930s after the establishment of the state ‘locked in’ those who were entitled to nationality (and the delicate religious balance of the state), and left others out. This has resulted in the great grandchildren of those who were initially left out of the citizenship identification process continuing to remain without nationality.
Flawed and discriminatory nationality laws also create new cases of statelessness and prolong protracted ones across the region. For example, 12 out of the 27 countries worldwide that discriminate against mothers in their right to transfer their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers are in the MENA region. Discrimination based on religion, race, and disability is also prevalent in the nationality legislation of various countries across the region. For example, under Yemeni nationality law, non-Arabs or Muslims are prohibited from access to naturalisation. Children born out of wedlock are often not legally recognised, and in most countries in the region valid marriage certificates are required to register the births of children. Even countries such as Lebanon and Syria, which have safeguards to protect children from being born stateless on their territories, rarely implement these safeguards.
The region has also witnessed many cases of arbitrary deprivation of nationality by states. Mauritania, Iraq, and Syria are three countries in the region that in recent history have arbitrarily deprived tens of thousands of persons of their nationality due to race and ethnicity. More recently, there has been a rise in the deprivation of nationality of individuals in the Gulf region, where nationality is being used as a tool to exclude persons from membership. Furthermore, in the majority of countries across the region, nationality disputes are not considered to fall under the jurisdiction of national courts, and therefore any arbitrary denial or deprivation cannot be legally challenged.
Lastly, forced migration has been and remains a fundamental cause of statelessness in the region. Historically, due to the upheaval of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the wake of the establishment of Israel, millions of Palestinians remain stateless today. Neighbouring countries do not grant citizenship to Palestinians, and therefore many live in an intergenerational and protracted state of statelessness. Additionally, recent conflict of the most severe nature in the region has meant that there are new factors that are putting families—particularly new-born children—at risk of statelessness.
Statelessness in the MENA is poorly mapped. No figures are available for the stateless populations in the majority of countries in the MENA, even though it is well known that many of these states have significant stateless populations. The following table provides the known statistics for the four countries which have reported stateless populations above 10,000:
The figures for Iraq and Syria have decreased over the past few years. In Iraq, some stateless persons have been able to obtain nationality on the basis of a new nationality law that was adopted in 2006. In Syria in 2011 legislative Decree No. 49—which was a concessionary measure to reduce anti-government protesting at the start of the Syrian revolutionary protests—resulted in tens of thousands of stateless Ajanib Kurds receiving nationality. However, this decree does not apply to all stateless Kurds – the Maktoum are excluded.