In December 2011 the world witnessed a momentous ministerial meeting organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. This was deemed one of the most successful events aimed at raising the profile of the problem of statelessness.
Being stateless means an individual is not considered a citizen by any state. There are approximately 12 million stateless persons worldwide. This status results in obstacles accessing basic rights. Without a nationality, individuals have no state that is responsible for protecting their rights. Often this will mean stateless persons are ineligible to vote and unable to access a range of services such as education, healthcare and employment There are international legal safeguards to protect stateless individuals but few protective frameworks in place for stateless persons in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that hosts some of the largest populations of stateless persons worldwide.
One obvious deficiency at the ministerial meeting was that no Middle Eastern state made any major pledge to address the problem. This silence is especially significant as the naturalization and denaturalization of stateless populations and individuals has become a topical issue in the waves of demonstrations and calls for reform that have swept through the region in the last eighteen months. With the current instability challenging political, social and economic norms, states are being forced to re-evaluate who is a national of their respective countries. Additionally, citizenship policy has both underpinned resentment amongst demonstrators and been a tool of appeasement for a number of regimes.
The initial development of nation states in the MENA region came at a time of ideological turmoil. Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire were divided by colonial forces, and as these borders were being drawn, populations began to grapple with a growing nationalistic pan-Arab ideology. Against this backdrop, emerging states faced the challenge of establishing a distinct national identity. Developing collective nationality in new born states created by foreign powers proved challenging. Unfortunately many regimes went on to adopt nationality policies informed by racial, gender and ethnic discrimination. Women in most states, for example, were not allowed to transmit their nationality to their children or spouses – an issue that is still with us today. Many ethnic populations, such as the Kurds have been effectively denationalized.
With statelessness often leading to expulsion, detention and severe marginalization in the region, this dire situation is now playing a significant role in current demands for reform. Kuwait and Syria provide two of the most indicative examples of this trend. The Arab revolts brought with them a renegotiation of the relationship between populations and states. Citizenship has become a major topic on both the agenda of the people and the regimes. In the wealthy and relatively secure country of Kuwait, the threat of instability stems from the stateless Bidoon population who continue to demand a final resolution of their enduring status of statelessness. Estimated figures of this population vary from between 80 to 150,000, and the protestors have been demanding nothing less than full citizenship. The Bidoons have been in a legal limbo since the creation of the Kuwaiti state. At first being stateless in Kuwait did not greatly affect their lives but regional political instability led the government to substantially change its policy towards them. Their status became illegal and they were excluded from access to welfare rights.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were denaturalized in the 1960s amidst an agenda to Arabize the region, and they were left with little access to basic rights. In 2011 when the government first felt that is was facing internal opposition, it immediately announced Presidential Decree no. 49 – granting certain groups of stateless Kurds Syrian citizenship. The regime saw the offer as the key to quelling mounting opposition amongst the Kurds. (The extent and effectiveness to which this decree has been implemented is yet to be fully understood.)
Although emerging demands from stateless populations appear to promise positive developments, Arab states made little or no mention of their commitment to address this issue during the UNHCR ministerial meeting. The worry now is that the determination of who is a national also risks being abused by governments facing opposition. For example, the increasing protests demanding that ‘citizenship is the only solution’ , has been met by the Kuwaiti government with erratic promises of citizenship coupled with the prohibition of protests and tragically ironic threats of deportation. This lack of substantial action from governments may be the reason for the silence of Arab states at this meeting. With citizenship comes engagement and ultimately the responsibility of representation. This demand for representation embodies the fear of many of the governments in the region. Withdrawing citizenship from vocal opponents is an option that many regimes across the region have often used in the past.
The Arab Citizen has a whole array of demands for rights. The need for citizenship to effectively exercise these rights is one that the stateless populations are placing at the forefront of their struggle. The debate on citizenship will always be a component to the challenge of state building, and here it seems the link between citizenship and representation is a double-edged sword: after decades of uncertainty, the resolution of the problem of statelessness may also open up new opportunities for abuse and exclusion.