Large Sudanese communities could become stateless, deprived of basic rights such as access to jobs and education, unless Khartoum and Juba ensure citizenship for all following South Sudan’s independence, the UN refugee chief said on Thursday.
Khartoum has excluded dual nationality for southerners, and last month Sudan’s parliament gave initial approval to cancel the citizenship of anyone taking up South Sudanese nationality after South Sudan became independent on July 9.
The move highlights the legal uncertainty of hundreds of thousands of southerners who have been living in the north for decades. Analysts say the question of citizenship could raise new tensions between the two sides that ended a two-decade war in 2005 and have yet to finalize their border.
The issue is of particular concern for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which launched a campaign on Thursday to highlight the plight of an estimated 12 million stateless people around the world. They do not exist on paper and are not considered nationals by any country.
“We are afraid that many people that had established long-lasting relationships in the north (of Sudan) and have very few contacts in the south might fall through the cracks if their nationality is not recognized (by either state),” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told AlertNet in an interview.
Guterres said UNHCR was working with both sides to make sure that every Sudanese was granted a nationality “to avoid what has happened, for instance, with the break-up of the Soviet Union in the past.”
Statelessness exacerbates poverty, creates social tensions and can divide families. The problem is most widespread in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, UNHCR said.
Yet only 66 countries are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and only 38 countries have signed the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which marks its 50th anniversary on August 30.
“That shows not only how difficult it has been to raise awareness in relation to the problem, but also some resistance of states because this deals with the heart of the concept of sovereignty -- nationality laws which, to a certain extent, are sometimes responsible for the existence of statelessness,” Guterres said.
And yet there was a compelling humanitarian argument for states to sign up to the conventions, he added, citing the “dramatic circumstances” in which many stateless people lived.
“Can you imagine that you are now living in the slums of a city in the developing world? That you have no nationality, no ID card?” Guterres said. “You cannot send your children to school, you have no access to official medical services, you do not have the right to work, to own property. That you can be jailed and forgotten in jail.”
The other argument being used to persuade governments to sign up was financial, he said. Failure to recognize stateless people meant many are unable to contribute to the economy.