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Children of no one: Africa takes bold steps to address statelessness

June 06th, 2018
in:Humans
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:Africa, gender discrimination, human trafficking, human-rights, identity, nationality, statelessness

For 35 year old Absame Asad, it is tough being alive. While he was born in Somalia, he lost his father to the civil war of the 1980s which saw his mother and two siblings relocate to Kenya to start life afresh.

But a few years later his mother would die due to a terminal illness. Still young, Asad had to find ways to survive. But nothing quite prepared him for the daunting task of trying to acquire identification documents. No government official was willing to give him any assistance especially because he had no proof that he was Kenyan, nor could he speak the local language. Three decades later, he is locked out of access to basic services like education, health or participate in any political process. He also cannot move to another country freely. “I have lived like a prisoner. I always feel trapped and caged. And there is nothing as scary as imagining I will probably live this kind of life for the rest of my life,” Asad said.

Yet Asad represents about 10 million people the world over who do not have a formal nationality and are christened stateless or legal ghosts, with a third of them being children, and who besides lacking a sense of entitlement have been prone to crimes like human trafficking.

While there is no specific data on the cumulative number of stateless people in Africa, regions like West Africa are said to have over one million people struggling to get some recognition. Kenya, where Asad is trying to get a nationality has about 18,500 of them.

It is particularly complicated in Africa where movement of pastoralists, civil conflicts, natural disasters and terrorism are increasingly rendering more people stateless.

In West Africa for example, the conflict in Lake Chad exacerbated by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has disrupted over 3 million people’s way of life forcing them to flee.

But what is perhaps the mother of all contributors is gender discrimination where legal provisions bar women from passing their nationality to their spouses, or children born out of wedlock are denied their parents' nationality. “It has got to be one of the gravest human rights violations ever. We are talking about medieval beliefs that still condemn children born out of wedlock to a life of uncertainty and fear and one that still holds that only a man gets to choose the destiny and life of his family. The sad bit is that governments in Africa haven’t had the political goodwill to reverse this atrocious affront to human dignity,” said Raphael Mwinzi a human rights lawyer.

The international community under the ambit of the United Nations had foreseen the dangers that would stem from uncontrolled number of undocumented citizens. They came up with the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons that defined stateless persons and spelt out the international obligation in protecting them. In 1961, the rights of the stateless people were further emboldened with the coming into force and adoption of the Convention on reduction of statelessness that required participating states to grant citizenship to children born on their territory who would otherwise be deemed stateless.

But a bulk of African states haven’t ratified the international instruments and are therefore not legally bound to fulfill these requirements. “Yet sadly Africa is one of the regions that, going forward, is set to experience the highest number of stateless population if emerging threats like mutating conflicts, terrorism and emerging threats are anything to go by. It is already evident from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe to North Africa. These are some of the most crucial legislations the African Union should force on member states because the aftermath has already been seen, and we cannot let it get any severe,” Mwinzi added.

A flicker of hope however abound. Madagascar, a country that has an approximate 100,000 stateless people out of the country’s population of 24 million people has made bold steps to put a stop to the situation.

Last year, it passed a new law providing for equal rights of citizens irrespective of gender to pass on their nationality to their children becoming the first African country.

In West Africa, the region has been actualising a plan to assist over one million people without nationalities gain requisite papers allowing them to move freely in the region, bolstered by new laws and modern way of data gathering that ensures that the region has its pulse on the state of the stateless.

Since the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, first inked the declaration to end statelessness in the region by 2024, more than 50,000 people now have identification documents.

In Kenya, which has over the years grappled with refugees influx from her neighbours battling war and hunger, proactive steps are being undertaken to finally nationalise thousands of residents who have agitated for recognition. Notable among them include the more than 1170 members of the Makonde community who were issued with national identification cards by President Kenyatta, becoming the 43rd tribe of Kenya.

For Asad such bold steps, albeit snail paced are a sign that one day, some day he will rightfully be recognized as a Kenyan citizen as will thousands more.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
Embed from Getty Images
But nothing quite prepared him for the daunting task of trying to acquire identification documents.
Embed from Getty Images
Asad represents about 10 million people the world over who do not have a formal nationality and are christened stateless or legal ghosts.
Embed from Getty Images
It is particularly complicated in Africa where movement of pastoralists, civil conflicts, natural disasters and terrorism are increasingly rendering more people stateless.

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