When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, Hanan Jaber Abdallah had no idea the historic move would make her five children invisible by rendering them stateless.

Like thousands of people with parents of mixed South Sudanese and Sudanese descent, they lost their Sudanese nationality immediately after the split. Hanan herself is Sudanese, but Sudanese nationality laws do not give mothers the right to automatically pass citizenship on to their children.

Her husband, originally from the south of Sudan, was unable to establish his own nationality in either country. And so their children, whose birth certificates said they were born in Sudan, found themselves stateless.

Statelessness has devastating impacts on the lives of those who live without a nationality. People who are not accepted as nationals of any country can be deprived of basic human rights, such as civil and political freedom of movement, as well as education, employment, social welfare, housing and healthcare.

“I could not sleep at night. I was afraid I wouldn’t complete my education.”

It was Hanan’s eldest daughter, Benazir, who first came to the grim realisation that she and her siblings were no longer citizens. It was 2012, and Benazir was ready to take her national high school exams but lacked the required identification.

Her mother tried to apply for a national identification number for her, but it was rejected by the government’s civil registry. Benazir was devastated.

“I could not sleep at night,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t complete my education.”

She continued school, but had to register as a foreigner, as did her younger siblings. Her school fees were more than 10 times higher than for Sudanese students, and her family had to borrow money from relatives.

“I even dropped out for a year because my parents could not afford the fees,” Benazir said. “I missed an internship opportunity as a researcher in a government laboratory.”

Upon learning that her children were stateless, Hanan embarked on a seven-year struggle to secure their Sudanese nationality. Legal support from UNHCR and partners, and a change in the nationality law, helped her succeed. © UNHCR/M. Elfatih Elnaiem

After learning from a community volunteer that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provided legal aid to those facing statelessness, Benazir urged her mother to ask for help.

For the next seven years, Hanan’s sole mission was to secure her children’s nationality – and their future. Through her own determination, and support from UNHCR, she learned to navigate the complex legal system, meeting regularly with a lawyer to prepare for court appearances.

“My heart is full of joy and I feel like a new dawn is breaking.”

A breakthrough came in December 2019, when Hanan finally received the nationality certificate. Her children’s lives immediately changed.

Benazir, who had entered university, gained peace of mind knowing she could get a job after graduation; her sister could go to university without paying exorbitant fees; and her younger sister no longer had to worry about the cost of elementary school.

The entire family told UNHCR they were relieved and felt their dignity had been restored.

“My heart is full of joy and I feel like a new dawn is breaking in my life,” Hanan said.

UNHCR has provided legal aid to over 500 families in Sudan who lost their Sudanese nationality and were unable to obtain South Sudanese nationality following South Sudan’s independence in 2011. 

 

Hanan sits with her five children as they hold up their Sudanese citizenship documents. Their Sudanese nationality was restored thanks to their mother's eight-year-struggle and the legal support of UNHCR and its partner. © UNHCR/M.Elfatih Elnaiem

Five years ago, UNHCR launched the “I Belong” campaign to end statelessness around the world by 2024.

As of 2019, more than 431,000 stateless people have now acquired a nationality, in part as a result of efforts that have been motivated by the campaign, in countries including Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Tajikistan, Thailand, Russia, Sweden, Vietnam, Uzbekistan and the Philippines.

Some states have signed on to key agreements and put in place mechanisms to count and acknowledge stateless people, and birth certificates have been issued to a large number of children who would otherwise be at risk of statelessness.

While great strides have been made to tackle statelessness globally, it remains a critical global issue. Today, millions of people are still denied a nationality through no fault of their own, are excluded from society and deprived of their human rights.

Stateless people face a life of exclusion —being denied a legal identity when they are born and therefore often denied access to education, healthcare, marriage and job opportunities during their lifetime and even the dignity of an official burial and a death certificate when they die.

This year, COVID-19 has exacerbated the difficulties and injustice that stateless people face in accessing services, enjoying rights, belonging and being accounted for and protected in society. In this time of crisis, the right to a nationality can mean the difference between life and death.

Every person has the right to say #IBelong.

UNHCR has provided legal aid to over 500 families in Sudan who lost their Sudanese nationality and were unable to obtain South Sudanese nationality following South Sudan’s independence in 2011.© UNHCR/M.Elfatih Elnaiem

 

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