Thirty years ago, in April 1980, between 220,000 and 300,000 Iraqi Faili Kurds were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship. Many were expelled from their homes and were forced to march across the Iranian border into decades of exile and statelessness. Others became non-citizens in their own country. Though important steps have been taken by the Government of Iraq to restore the citizenship of these people, it is estimated that roughly 100,000 still lack a nationality.
In Iraq it is essential to hold a nationality certificate in order to access work, education and other basic rights and opportunities. The nationality certificate is often required to obtain other kinds of documentation such as birth, death and marriage certificates. Without a nationality certificate many Faili Kurds have been denied access to basic services and rights for at least three decades.
The Faili Kurds are largely a Shi'a community living in Baghdad, the Diyala Province of Iraq, and in the Southern Governorates of Wassit, Missan and Basrah. For centuries the Failis have lived in the border area between Iraq and Iran on both sides of the Zagros Mountains.
This population has long been discriminated against in Iraq. The 1924 Iraqi Nationality Law divided Iraq's population into three categories based on religion and ethnicity. The Shi'a Kurds were systematically classified in the lowest category. They were repeatedly targeted by government officials who claimed that as followers of the Shi'a faith, Faili Kurds were in fact originally from Iran. The Baathist government feared potential dissidence and opposition and therefore discriminated against them.
In the mid 1970s Iraq expelled around 40,000 Faili Kurds to Iran, alleging they were Iranian nationals. In 1980, decree 666 ensured that Faili Kurds were stripped of Iraqi citizenship. Their properties were seized by the government. Many of the families that were deported to Iran were highly educated, economically successful and held ranking positions in the government. While in Iran, many of these families lived in camps and were denied access to work, education and travel documents. They were even unable to register births, deaths and marriages. Some Faili Kurds report that if they sought to return to Iraq, many would receive a stamp from the Iranian authorities that read, "departure with no return."
The 2006 Iraqi Nationality Law repealed decree 666 and states that all persons that had been denaturalized by the former government should have their Iraqi nationality reinstated. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MODM), since 2003 about 20,000 families (or roughly 100,000 individuals) have had their citizenship reinstated. This is an important and positive first step. The challenge now is to help facilitate the reinstatement of citizenship for those who lack the necessary documents to prove they originate from Iraq. In order to reacquire Iraqi citizenship, Faili Kurds need to show that they were registered during the 1957 Iraqi national census. Many are unable to provide this proof of registration. During the war civil records were destroyed or lost and in some cases, people were simply not included in the census.
Iraq has a real opportunity to be an international leader in the resolution of statelessness. By partnering with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the organization mandated to prevent, protect and find solutions for stateless persons, the new Government in Iraq should seek to swiftly resolve this problem. UNHCR should make the Faili Kurds a priority and deploy protection staff focused exclusively on this issue. Though there are many pressing humanitarian challenges in Iraq today, this one can actually be resolved. The necessary legal framework is already in place, and the Government of Iraq has in the recent past expressed a strong political will to reinstate citizenship for this group. With a concerted and sustained focus, this issue can and should be addressed.