Experts, activists, journalists, students and representatives from NGOs, the UN and member states gathered at a side event of the Human Rights Council on 15 June 2017. “I Belong: Statelessness & Revoking Citizenship” was an event organized by SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, Jssor Youth Organisation, Liberation and Forum-Asia as part of the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. Panelists included Sayed Yusuf Almuhafda (SALAM), Zahra Albarazi (Institute on Statelessness & Inclusion), Azizz Kalo (Syrian human rights activist), Dr. Masaud Jahromi (victim of revoking citizenship), and moderator Mohammed Serkal (Jssor Youth Organisation) who presented testimonies and offered in-depth perspectives into the political motivations for denaturalization.
Moderator Mohammed Serkal provided context for the event, setting the stage to discuss an issue that affects 10 million people globally (noting, however, that the true number of stateless people globally is difficult to track). “Citizenship is the highest and most secure legal status one can hold in a state,” he noted. He spoke about the effect statelessness has on children and on families, before calling for an action plan from the Human Rights Council to address this issue.
“Taking someone’s nationality, leaving them stateless, is a form of punishment more primitive than torture,” said panelist Zahra Albarazi. Depriving someone of the rights and privileges of citizenship is a huge issue, she noted, pointing out that this practice is especially harmful to those who are born into statelessness. The main cause for revoking citizenships is discrimination, she stated, before detailing the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s (UNHCR) “#IBelong” campaign and its effort to identify and protect those who are stateless. The psychological effects for these populations are also detrimental to their well-being.
Sayed Yusuf Almuhafda, an activist from Bahrain, followed up by quoting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, stating, “everyone has the right to a nationality.” He offered specifics about the situation in Bahrain: 133 people were denaturalized in 2016 alone, with the total number being approximately 400. He also pointed to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that states, “every child has the right to acquire a nationality.” The Kingdom of Bahrain ratified this covenant in 2006, and yet many children in Bahrain are still affected by this practice. “Stateless persons have no recognised rights in Bahrain,” he continued, “and their ability to obtain and retain housing, employment, legal representation, banking facilities and medical aid are all severely restricted.” He called for the Bahraini authorities to allow for UN Special Rapporteurs to meet with victims of citizenship revocation.
Activist Azizz Kalo, who lives quite close to where the event was taking place in Geneva, spoke next. He is from Syria, but is currently stateless and living in a camp near to the Geneva airport. He detailed his struggles living without a passport, a work permit, or the ability to travel across borders or completing everyday tasks. He noted he had been asked for proof of identity and nationality in Switzerland. “How can a human live without an identity or without a country?” he asked the audience. He detailed that, in Syria, loss of your ID can prevent your access to food, loans, bank accounts and basic rights.
On Saturday, 31 January 2015, the Bahraini government issued a list of people who were suddenly stateless; Dr. Masaud Jahromi, who joined the event via video message, was third on that list. His employer, a university, was then forced to dismiss him. He was called to hand in his passport. When the government takes away someone’s citizenship, he stated, it affects more than just the person named and their family. “There is a hidden message to the larger society… if you are not going to follow the government’s wishes, then you are subject to lose your citizenship.” All the governmental and social services are cut for anyone who is denaturalized. He put out a call for the development of mechanisms to enforce international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and their affirmations on the right to citizenship.
This session provided proof of the negative effects that denaturalization can have on individuals, children, families, and groups. This discriminatory practice is often used to subvert and target opposition party members, a message found within a video also shown at the session. With many quoting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the audience could see the frustrations in the lack of response to cases where such international promises had clearly been broken.