‘Unfair citizenship laws put children at risk of becoming stateless’

London, June 28

Countries that ban mothers from passing on their citizenship to their children risk creating ‘a tsunami of injustices’ for families and are holding back development, a global conference on statelessness heard yesterday.

Twenty-five countries, including Nepal, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, do not let women hand their nationality to their children, placing them at risk of becoming stateless, which means they are not recognised as citizens by any countries.

Catherine Harrington of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights said discriminatory laws fuelled statelessness and hampered development because they reduced people’s ability to contribute to society.

They can also have a ‘tragic impact’ on families, she said.

Nepali single mother Deepti Gurung told the conference in The Hague how her daughters Neha and Nikita were left stateless because they could not inherit her citizenship.

Neha dreamt of becoming a doctor, but was barred from the entrance exam because she lacked citizenship.

“It was horribly painful to see my sweetheart shut her books,” said Gurung, who has long campaigned for reforms.

She described Nepal as ‘the land of Everest and stateless children’ and said countries with similar laws were wasting the talents of their young people. The Himalayan nation has stated that it does not have stateless people, but legal experts believe there is a large stateless population.

Children often become stateless if they cannot inherit their father’s nationality. This can happen in cases where the father is absent, dead, displaced by war or is stateless himself. Gurung said stateless people suffered a ‘tsunami of injustices’ — they cannot travel, open bank accounts, get a scooter licence or even a mobile phone SIM card.

“I felt we had been forbidden to live freely. I felt like a fugitive in my own country for a crime we had not committed,” she said. After a long battle with the authorities, her daughters acquired citizenship and are now planning to become lawyers.

Activist Habiba Al-Hinai, who has campaigned for reforms in Oman, told the conference of her shock on discovering her son Hafez could only inherit his German father’s nationality. When Hafez was born premature she received a colossal hospital bill even though medical care is free for Omanis.

“I said ‘Why? I’m Omani’ and they said, ‘Yes, but your son is a foreigner.’ That was the first shock,” she said. Although her son has German citizenship, she said many other children with Omani mothers and foreign fathers end up stateless.

“They are punishing women with the law,” Al-Hinai said.

Her son was forced to leave Oman when he was 18 and is now studying engineering in Berlin. Al-Hinai, who runs the Omani Association for Human Rights, decided to move too.

“I cannot consider Oman my country if it cannot have my children,” she said. “What’s the point of calling it home?”

Harrington said there was a growing momentum for reform in the 19 countries having overhauled discriminatory laws in the last 15 years, most recently Sierra Leone and Madagascar.