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Citizenship and Statelessness in the Member States of the Southern African Development Community, December 2020

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Extent of statelessness

The Member States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) host significant populations of people that are stateless or at risk of statelessness. That is, of people for whom there is a possibility or probability that they are “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”, the international law definition of a stateless person. It is not possible to put a number on the total population at risk, nor on the smaller but still significant number of people who are in fact stateless.

Causes of statelessness

The reasons why a significant number of people are at risk of statelessness in the region date back to the colonial history of Africa, the arbitrary delineation of borders which divided many ethnic groups between two or more countries, the forced movement of populations, and the discriminatory systems to document identity; the challenges created by more recent conflict and forced displacement, in part a legacy of this colonial past, as well as management of migration more generally; discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, and other characteristics; and gaps in law and procedures to protect vulerable children, including those of unknown or undocumented parents.

If the transitional provisions applied at independence (the rules on state succession) did not enable those with a strong connection to the country and without access to another nationality to acquire the nationality of the country of residence, they – and their descendants – are at high risk of statelessness today. The probability that substantial numbers of people will be stateless are greatest where the law now in force provides no rights to nationality based on birth in the territory (as is the case in many SADC member states), and where naturalisation is very difficult to access (true in all SADC member states).

In practice, civil registration and identification systems are key to recognition of nationality. The systems bequeathed by the colonial powers were focused on control of the “native” population rather than the effective administration of the state to ensure the rights of all, meaning that the civil registration systems that record the details essential to prove entitlement to nationality were very incomplete at independence. Civil registration remains weak in many states. Even in states with more complete coverage, parents without identity documents are often unable to register the births of their children, while single parents commonly face discrimination. Weak civil registration and discrimination in turn affect determination of eligibility for identity documents issued to adults. Where systems of identification and registration are weak or have inadequate independent oversight, many people who are entitled to nationality under the law may be unable to get recognition of that nationality in practice