United Arab Emirates: Nationality Matters

By Maureen Lynch

It’s been five years now since Refugees International first visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to better understand and then call for solutions on behalf of the country’s stateless population – the bidoon.  Since mid-2008 there have been a number of media reports indicating that change was afoot, and that efforts were being made to tackle statelessness through a one-time only special registration process.  So, when the possibility popped up of visiting the country last summer, we took it.

What we learned, though, was not exactly what we anticipated to find.  There was a real mix of opinions regarding how much these changes had actually helped the bidoon population. On one hand, authorities painted a fairly rosy picture of how the registration process had been rolled out and some of its beneficial consequences, intended or otherwise.  The bidoon themselves, on the other hand, painted a far less glowing picture of the same process and its impact on their lives.  
I’d really like to be able to take an official’s word as the authority on the matter while getting clarification on some important points. However, it’s not possible to be very complimentary in light of the accounts we heard from people who attempted to undergo the registration process.  The words of one young bidoon man protest loudly in my mind.  

In the UAE, the bidoon are represented by two major groups– Arabs (from neighboring countries) and non-Arabs (mainly from Iran and the Indian Sub-Continent) whose families settled in the Gulf generations ago as merchants or workers. Exact numbers of the bidoon in the UAE are not generally known and range from 10,000 to 100,000. While they’re not generally subject to deportation, they do face discrimination in the labor market and, as a result, encounter some serious socio-economic challenges. The bidoon have limited access to medical care and education, and without passports and other basic identity documents, their movement is restricted, both within UAE’s borders and internationally. 

When I met him, a young man I’ll call Ilir had just gone through the registration process and was eager to resolve his statelessness through legal means.  Though born in the UAE, he had not been given a birth certificate. This, despite the fact that the UAE is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which include the right to an identity, registration and nationality.

This family of seven, including Ilir’s parents, had gone together to a designated registration site to pick up a copy of the 14-page application form.  Questions included the applicant’s name, nationality, whether the individual had traveled outside the country and to where, if they sent money to anyone outside the country and if so to whom and by what method.  Each individual was fingerprinted and videotaped making a statement about themselves.  Samples of saliva were collected, and then applicants were sent to another building for an eye scan.

The registration procedure continued with an additional three-step process.  Family members were taken individually and asked about their relationship to the people waiting outside the room.  In this case, the father of the family had documents providing evidence of residence in the country for several decades. “People who have been in the country longer, should get recognized first,” Ilir suggested. 

On the day we met, Ilir said that for all the people he knows who went through the registration process around the same time that his family did, nothing has happened in 80 percent of the cases.  He doesn’t know anybody who got citizenship or nationality rights.  “The future is not getting better, it’s just unjust and unfair,” Ilir laments.  “After people got the new cards from this process, some 40 individuals lost their jobs.  My parents couldn’t get healthcare… Other people had problems getting married.”

One of Ilir’s friends, a man who I’ll call Khaled, had come along with Ilir to meet us.  I asked Khaled if he knew any stateless people who had been able to solve their problem.  He answered affirmatively.  When I subsequently asked about whether or how that person’s life had been changed as a result of his newly regularized legal status, Khaled was quick to respond.  “Every aspect of his life is different.  He got a job, and then a raise.  He feels safe and secure.” 

Nationality matters.