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Africa has one of the largest stateless populations in the world, however governments have only recently started to recognize it as a serious problem.
In the Kiambaa area on the outskirts of Kenya's capital Nairobi, it's not unusual to hear hymns sung in the Shona language. It's more unusual, however, when you consider that Shona is one of the main languages of Zimbabwe.
The district is home to over 4,500 Shona people; many of whom are first or second generation Zimbabweans whose grandparents trekked to Kenya in the 1960s to establish the Gospel of God Church. But although they were born and raised in this country, thanks to dated citizenship laws they are not recognized as Kenyan nationals, nor do they have any official connection with Zimbabwe. They are, in effect, stateless.
Most Shona people living in Kenya would be happy to be recognized as citizens of any country. Without identity cards, they are barred from accessing good jobs, opening a bank account, buying a house and even getting married. Almost everyone here has a story of how they were held back from life-changing opportunities because of their statelessness.
"I was born, raised and educated here," a Shona man known only as Kutenda told DW. "I played handball for my school up to the national level and we were nominated to go to Sweden. All the other students were Kenyans and they quickly got their passports. But I never got to go, even though I was the captain. I needed a passport which I didn't have. I was playing to represent a country which has never recognized me as one of its own."
But the Shona people are not alone in their plight. Across the continent, thousands of people are considered stateless and there are growing calls for international organizations and governments to do something about it. The 32nd African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government Summit officially ended on Monday after two days of talks between the leaders of 55 member states. This year's theme was 'The Year of Refugees, Returnees and IDPs (internally displaced persons): Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.' Conspicuously absent from the talks, however, was a concrete plan to address the issue of statelessness.
"We need to focus more to solve the problem of refugees, IDPs and migrants in a comprehensive manner," new chair of the AU, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, said during the closing of the summit.
African Union chair, Egyptian President Abeba Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, made no reference to the issue of statelessness in his closing remarks
In international law, a stateless person is defined as someone who is "not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law." The exact number of stateless people around the world is unknown; however the UNHCR estimates there are approximately 12 million, with over 715,000 in Africa alone — though the actual number is likely to be far higher. A person may find themselves stateless as a result of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender, the transfer of territory between existing states, or conflicting nationality laws.
"When you do not exist by law, you are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation," UNHCR Assistant Representative Catherine Hamon Sharpe told DW. "Vulnerable people can be easily manipulated, they can be trafficked…so they suffer a whole lot of human rights violations. Every person should be entitled to a nationality."
The African perspective
Statelessness is increasingly being recognized as a major problem in Africa. However, it remains poorly documented — partly because the official stateless population significantly overlaps with a much larger population of undocumented people who are unaware of their official nationality status. There is also a common misconception that all refugees are stateless.
The problem is particularly acute on the continent for a number of reasons, including the history of partition and migration as a result of ongoing conflict. Many states currently lack the capacity to properly respond to waves of migration, which contribute to the stateless population. There have also been cases of statelessness being used deliberately as a tool of political persecution and exclusion.
In most African states, nationality laws are based on the concepts of jus soli, or 'right of soil,' and jus sanguinis, or 'right of blood.' Under the former, the person can obtain citizenship if they are born in that particular country, while the latter bases a person's nationality on the origin of their parents. In many cases, states which primarily base their nationality laws on the principle of jus soli prevent populations who are away from their 'historic' homeland to apply for citizenship of that country, while at the same time being denied nationality of their country of residence due to laws based on jus sanguinis.
"They are in limbo, because they are not protected by the citizenship of their new country and at the same time they are not protected by their country of origin because they are no longer citizens," Cristiano d'Orsi, a research fellow and lecturer in Refugee and Migration Law at the Univerisity of Johannesburg told DW.
Perhaps the best known example of an ongoing stateless crisis in Africa due in part to complicated citizenship laws is in Ivory Coast. The estimated stateless population is currently 700,000. The majority of these people are migrants of Burkinabe descent and were not considered eligible for Ivorian nationality following the country's independence in 1960. A further constitutional amendment in 1972, which prohibited foreigners who had not already registered from becoming citizens, effectively left thousands of families and future generations stateless.
Obtaining the correct documents in order to prove nationality is a daunting task for many stateless people
Thankfully there have been recent signs of progress towards tackling the issue of statelessness across Africa. The Abidjan Declaration signed by the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2017 highlighted the political will to address the problem. Meanwhile in Tanzania in 2018, the African Court on Human and People's Rights ruled that the country arbitrarily deprived a man of Tanzanian citizenship and ordered the government to fix the gaps in its citizenship legislation, potentially paving the way for other countries to follow suit.
"The African Union in fact has a very interesting proposal to adopt a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the right to a nationality and the eradication of statelessness in Africa," Bronwen Manby, an independent consultant in the field of human rights told DW. "And that would be an important normative statement about the minimum content of laws in order to avoid statelessness."
Another solution could be the introduction of an African Union passport, which is currently in the works and may be introduced as early as 2020. Ultimately however, there are limits to what international organizations and courts can do to solve the problem of statelessness.
"The countries that are affected should try to solve the problem domestically," said d'Orsi. "Because the question of statelessness is basically a domestic problem."
Andrew Wasike contributed to this article.