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Middle East and North Africa

7 min read

Discussion of statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the special case of the Palestinians, both those living under the Palestinian Authority and those who are refugees in other countries of the region. However, statelessness is also widespread among other minority groups. Many of the long-standing stateless communities trace their situation back to the succession of states on the break-up of the Ottoman empire and then the end of the British and French mandates that were put in place during the period between the First and Second World Wars. The Middle East is also the region that has the largest number of countries that still discriminate on the basis of gender, some refusing to allow women to transmit nationality to their children in almost  any circumstances. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion also remains common both in law and in practice, heightening risks of statelessness among minorities from other communities.

By far the largest group of stateless people in the region under the mandate of UNHCR are the 160,000 people recorded in 2016 as stateless Syrians – many of them now stateless refugees outside the country. UNHCR and others are making significant efforts to preserve their future right to Syrian nationality and prevent statelessness. The majority of this group are stateless Kurds, excluded from a national census conducted in 1962. People of Kurdish ethnicity are also stateless in Iraq and Iran: in 1980, as many as 300,000 Faili Kurds were stripped of Iraqi nationality by decree and large numbers were expelled, most of them to Iran. Following the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, a new nationality law allowed most of this group to return and reclaim nationality, though an unknown number remain stateless either in Iraq or in Iran. Lebanon also hosts many thousands of stateless people, although no figure is recorded in UNHCR’s statistics. Lebanon, like Syria, was a French mandate territory under the League of Nations, and the majority of those stateless today are the descendants of people who were already resident in the territory but were not recorded in the first population registers of the 1920s.

Among the long-term stateless in Lebanon are the Palestinians, who are also the largest stateless community in the region. UNRWA, the UN agency with responsibility for Palestinian refugees, counts five million people under its mandate, and there are other stateless Palestinian refugees who do not benefit from UNRWA registration. Statelessness persists in part because of the decision of the member states of the Arab League that the Palestinian diaspora should not be given nationality, as a way of preserving their identity and political cause. Pervasive gender discrimination also means that a woman national of one of the Arab states married to a Palestinian man often cannot transmit her nationality to their child. Palestinian refugees receive varied treatment across the region, enjoying different legal statuses, and greater or lesser access to other rights, according to the policies of the host states. In Jordan, host to the largest population of people of Palestinian origin (more than half its 6.3 million population), most in fact do hold Jordanian nationality; however, in recent years thousands have had that nationality withdrawn, threatening rights to property, health care, education and work.

The Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) each have an unknown number of stateless people known as Bidoon, short for bidoon jinsiyya or ‘without nationality’. These stateless minorities are mainly descendants of people who were resident in the country but were not included in the first population registers at independence from their former status as British Protected States in 1961 (Kuwait) or 1971 (the remainder). The most researched Bidoon population is that in Kuwait, where there are more than 100,000 stateless persons. There is also an unknown number of Kuwaiti Bidoon in Iraq, who fled during the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and did not return. There are no accepted figures for stateless persons in Bahrain, Qatar or the UAE, though at least thousands of people are in this situation in each state. Saudi Arabia, by far the largest state in the Gulf region, is reported by UNHCR to be home to around 70,000 stateless people. Among these are pilgrims who came to Mecca for Hajj and never left the country. There is also a large population of Rohingya Muslims. However, most originate from the Arabian Peninsula, members of nomadic tribes who once held registration as nationals but are no longer able to renew their documents.

When minorities face discrimination in multiple countries, as can happen with border communities, the risks of statelessness are especially high. While the situation in Iran is little documented, populations identified as being at risk of statelessness, in addition to the Faili Kurds, are Khavari Afghans, living along the border in the north east of Iran. Khavari Afghans are a sub-group of Hazara, a group that faces general discrimination in Afghanistan: Iran continues to regard them as Afghan by default, despite many having lived for many generations in Iran. Children of Afghan refugees, especially those whose births have not been registered, are also generally at risk.

In North Africa, there are stateless minorities in Libya, including the Tebu, whose traditional territory includes the disputed ‘Aouzou strip’ of land awarded to neighbouring Chad by the International Court of Justice. The two main situations creating a risk of statelessness are the systematic discrimination against Black Mauritanians, leaving many without recognition of Mauritanian nationality, and the refugees from the territory of Western Sahara, claimed by Morocco, who live in camps near Tindouf in the Algerian desert. Nominally nationals of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is recognized by the African Union and a number of individual states, they do not have recognized nationality in any UN member state.

Deprivation of nationality has been quite widely used in the MENA region, especially in the Gulf States, in some cases leaving those affected stateless. In Bahrain, the authorities have stripped hundreds of people of their nationality since powers to do so were expanded in 2013 and 2014, rendering many of them stateless. While these have been used to target a range of individuals, including human rights defenders, lawyers, doctors and political opponents associated with peaceful protest against the government, many came from the Shi’a community, who, though a numerical majority in the state, face discrimination and repression from the Sunni ruling family. A number of prominent Shi’a figures, including spiritual leaders of the community, have been stripped of nationality in recent years.

Children across the Middle East are placed at risk of statelessness by gender discrimination in nationality laws. The North African states, however, have seen much more movement towards gender equality. The law discriminates on the basis of gender in twelve countries in the region, including three countries – Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar – where nationality cannot be acquired through a mother in any circumstances. Syrian women can only transmit nationality to their children born in the country, and only if the father does not claim the child, a defect of major significance to children of Syrian refugee mothers, especially if the father is dead or missing. In the remaining countries, women can pass nationality to their children only in limited circumstances, such as if the father is unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality or does not recognize the child. The Iraqi Constitution of 2005 establishes gender equality in transmission of nationality to children, but the 2006 nationality law continues to discriminate in relation to children born outside the country. Gender discrimination particularly affects minority communities where many are stateless, since it means that women may feel obliged to base their choices to marry and have children on the legal status of the father; while men may be unable to marry at all.

In addition, many of the Arab states include provisions in their laws that explicitly favour the recognition of nationality for those who are of Arab and/or Muslim heritage. These derive both from the pan-Arab movement of the post-second world war period, and also from the standard transitional provisions related to nationality laws provided in the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne following the break-up of the Ottoman empire. Israel similarly provides preferential access to nationality for people of Jewish heritage. Discrimination of this type leaves those not of the favoured group at heightened risk of statelessness. Among those affected are members of the Dom community, related to the Roma of Europe, who are reported to have difficulties accessing nationality in several countries, including Iraq; there are also Dom among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and elsewhere.

Photo: Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. Credit: EC/ECHO.