“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

An unexpected frontrunner - Tackling statelessness in Iraq

8 February 2013 | Karel Hendriks

It may surprise some that in 2010, no country in the world achieved a larger reduction in statelessness than Iraq. A new constitution granting the right to confer citizenship to men and women equally, and a nationality law that is among the most progressive in the Middle East have made Iraq into something of a frontrunner. A number of articles in the nationality law even explicitly allow for the re-acquisition of nationality by groups that were denaturalised during Saddam Hussein's regime. However, in spite of these generous provisions, little exists in terms of legal framework, procedures or guidelines to ensure that as many people benefit from these favourable circumstances. What's more, as in so many other countries, the number of people that remain stateless is even more obscure, nor do we know much about the specific difficulties they face.

To address some of these concerns, a December 2012 conference in Amman hosted Iraqi officials from various Ministries, Parliament, the National Security Advisory and academia. After all, previous mapping studies initiated by UNHCR in Europe have demonstrated that if governments are involved in as early a stage as possible, chances of genuine follow-up to research and advocacy efforts increase considerably (as discussed during the recent European Network on Statelessness Kick-Off event in Budapest). As one of the authors of 'Mapping statelessness in the Netherlands' I took this advice particularly to heart, as this study has not yet been utilised to the extent that it should.

The conference again demonstrated that statelessness is an issue that invokes heated debate, because it touches upon fundamental issues like national identity, solidarity and security. Many Iraqi officials were eager for their country to receive some recognition for their efforts to right wrongs of the past. The fact that UNHCR continues to report the outdated estimate of 120.000 stateless persons living in Iraq is a cause for much annoyance. However, a willingness to further improve and clarify the framework to address remaining cases of statelessness appears to be present too, and it was generally accepted that thorough mapping is essential to do so. After three days, all participants agreed to three things: i) UNHCR and the Government of Iraq will collaboratively quantify and analyze statelessness in the country; ii) the Government of Iraq will look into the benefits of acceding to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on Statelessness; iii) as well as into further possible improvements in its nationality law.

All in all, much remains to be done. Mapping statelessness remains a daunting task, especially in an environment so fraught with security concerns, hosting stateless communities that deliberately shy away from registration and regularisation. After all, it has done many of them little good in the past. However, with Europe's experience in mind and the government involved all throughout the project's planning and execution, Iraq may well be the next country where the issue of statelessness is pried from the shadows.

Karel Hendriks works as Associate Protection Officer for UNHCR in Iraq (Baghdad). Please note that this blog was written entirely in a personal capacity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of UNHCR.

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