For 50,000 formerly stateless Uzbeks, citizenship will unlock the door to foreign travel, the right to vote and allow them a new-found dignity.
By Agnieszka Pikulicka in Tashkent, Uzbekistan | 20 January 2021
Hearing Uzbekistan’s national anthem after a victorious fight has always been Mukhamadjon Turgunov’s biggest dream. But the former kickboxing champion never had the chance to represent his country in international tournaments. For stateless people like him, travelling abroad was largely off limits. “It felt as if I was part of a family, but nevertheless an orphan; as if this country did not accept me,” he says. “I’m Uzbek. I grew up in Uzbekistan, I studied here, I love this country.”
Now the fighter-turned-taekwondo instructor hopes that he will soon be able to travel to watch his students compete abroad. In April this year, after being stateless for 28 of his 29 years, he finally became an Uzbek citizen.
“It’s impossible to describe the feeling. It’s like being born again,” he says with a wide grin.
Until recently, Uzbekistan had one of the highest rates of statelessness in the world, with 97,346 documented cases. But thanks to a new law that came into effect in April 2020, nearly 50,000 previously stateless people are now eligible to become citizens. The law applies to those who had been granted permanent residency in the country before 1995.
Recently Uzbekistan also amended its birth registration procedures to ensure all children are registered, including those born to undocumented parents.
In his annual address to Uzbekistan’s parliament on 29 December, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced that in 2021 the Government would strengthen its efforts to end statelessness in the country.
Under a new initiative unveiled in that speech, people who moved to Uzbekistan before 2005 and who have lived there ever since will be eligible to become citizens. Some 20,000 people will be able to resolve their statelessness and become citizens under the initiative.
Around the world, millions of stateless people face a lifetime of exclusion and discrimination. They are unable to vote, and often cannot access education, obtain medical treatment, travel abroad, seek a job or even buy a SIM card for a mobile phone. Although 4.2 million people are known to be stateless globally, the actual number is likely much higher as less than half of all countries collect data on stateless populations.
Uzbekistan is among five Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, that have taken significant steps to prevent and reduce statelessness in recent years, with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024. In the six years since the start of the campaign, some 83,000 stateless people in the region have acquired a nationality.
Statelessness in Central Asia can – in most cases – be traced back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Previously, borders were open, and a Soviet passport granted people freedom to move between republics. In borderland regions in particular, national identities were fluid and travel virtually unconstrained.
Mukhamadjon was born to ethnic Uzbek parents in the Kyrgyz Republic in August 1991, just four months before the Soviet Union collapsed. His mother came from Namangan, an Uzbek city close to the Kyrgyz border, while his father was a Kyrgyzstan-born Uzbek. The distance between their cities was only 60 kilometres and, before 1991, the couple frequently travelled across the invisible border between the two Soviet republics.
Towards the end of 1992, the family moved to Namangan, but they were too late to claim citizenship. A new law stipulated that only those who had permanent residency in Uzbekistan before 1 May that year could become citizens. Their son, Mukhamadjon, became stateless.
Initially, his status did not affect his life. Stateless people in Uzbekistan retain most of the same rights as citizens, excluding the right to vote and run for office. But they face significant obstacles when it comes to crossing borders.
Not all countries recognize “grey passports” - a travel document issued to stateless people by the government of Uzbekistan. As a result, applying for foreign visas can be arduous and time consuming. For Mukhamadjon, who lived in a city almost 300 kilometres away from the capital, Tashkent, it was a barrier that proved hard to overcome.
“I was the Uzbek champion in kickboxing and there were moments when my coach wanted to send me for international championships abroad, but … there would always be problems with the visa,” he says. “When it came to my sporting career, it was an obstacle.”
Gulchehra Dadabaeva was born in Kyrgyzstan but moved to Uzbekistan to study nursing in 1991, just in time to be eligible for citizenship and the new Uzbekistani passport. The 46-year-old submitted her passport application along with her old USSR passport, but instead was sent an identity document for stateless people which she was told would guarantee her the same rights as a citizen.
Initially, Gulchehra did not realize that she would never be able to visit her parents, who lived just across the border in Kyrgyzstan. She remained stateless for 28 years, the same amount of time that she dedicated to her work as a nurse in the surgical ward of a Namangan hospital.
“I could not go to Kyrgyzstan or any other country. My parents used to visit me,” she says.
Like Mukhamadjon, the paperwork needed and the trip to Tashkent to apply for travel documents and a visa were major impediments. “I work and I have children to take care of,” she points out.
Following the introduction of the new law, Gulchehra finally received her passport in October 2020 and was able to visit her parents.
Now, she is looking forward to voting in the next presidential election. “It’s important to me,” she says. “I will vote for the first time in my life.”
While Mukhamadjon’s career as a fighter is over, he hopes that one day he will hear Uzbekistan’s national anthem resounding for one of his students. Two of them have already taken part in international championships.
“Sportsmen always have stronger patriotic feelings than other people, because they represent the country,” he says, sitting in the corridor of Uzbekistan’s Taekwondo Federation before one of his students’ fights.
“The whole world has opened in front of me, but I want to stay in Uzbekistan and coach my students. I will show that granting me citizenship was a good decision.”