Aug 20, 2015

End Statelessness in Kenya to promote Progress

Recent news on issues of citizenship, statelessness and marginalization have featured Nubian, Makonde, Shona, Somali and Arab communities in Kenya. These are groups with historical or ethnic ties to other countries who have either been rendered stateless or are in danger of becoming stateless.

International treaties proclaim citizenship as a basic right, though we have 10 million stateless people globally. The fact that they are not recognized by any state as citizens exposes them to many challenges ranging from denial of basic rights and access to employment, housing, education, and healthcare.

It is possible that they are also not able to own property, open bank accounts, get married legally or register their children after birth. Some could even face detention because they cannot prove who they are.

The exact number of stateless people in Kenya is not known and was unfortunately not recorded in the last census. It is rather roughly estimated that there are 100,000 of them from Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Asia.

These have either not been able to access legal documentation or are finding it difficult to proof their Kenyan nationality in vetting processes. Most of them were brought in Kenya as workers during the colonial era but did not return home after independence and were never granted citizenship by Kenya.

The Nubian Community originally from Sudan with a current population of about 100,000 people has been in Kenya since 1900. Some of them have consistently claimed to experience bottlenecks in registration or obtaining national identification documents. The Shona from Zimbabwe face the same dilemma.

Interestingly, we have some Kenyan citizens who might be at risk of being rendered stateless. Kenyan Somalis who in the past registered themselves as refugees from Somalia despite having Kenyan citizenship belong to this category.

The rights of stateless people in Kenya may not have been fully provided in the past legal regimes but with the new constitution promulgated in 2010, there shouldn’t be any impediment for their enjoyment of these rights.

Considering that some of these communities have lived in Kenya for over sixty years, it is their constitutional right that they be registered as Kenyan citizens despite their origins. Article 15 of the Citizens and Immigration Act, 2011 indicates that, a stateless person who has lived in Kenya for a continuous period since 12th December, 1963, shall be deemed to have been lawfully resident and may apply to be registered as a citizen. It further outlines citizenship rights for descendants of stateless people.

Though this law limits the number of years within which applications for citizenship are to be made (five years from the commencement of the Act), it does give a legal room for stateless people to claim citizenship. In fact, its sections are largely complementary to the 1954 UN Convention relating to the status of statelessness and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of Statelessness.

The challenge however remains the efficiency in its implementation and the public perception on how it is administered. Members from the stateless communities have continually shown concern over the government’s use of both ethnicity and territory to establish claims for belonging in Kenya. Their claims are still contested and as a result, their registration has not ceased to be slow.

The government must however be praised for its recent move to naturalize some 3000 members from the ethnic Pemba and Makonde communities in Kwale County. These two trace their origins to Zanzibar and Mozambique respectively. Their naturalization followed a presidential directive after the Kwale County Assembly petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta to grant them citizenship.

However, handling the challenge of statelessness efficiently will require the exact number of stateless people in Kenya to be established. It will even be more efficient if it can be administered through a comprehensive strategy and a detailed policy framework with clear registration procedures and timelines.

This task can be taken up by a dedicated government led task force or committee which will also undertake public awareness campaigns on the procedures and timelines for registration of affected people.

Strategic communication on all matters pertaining the Citizenship and Immigration Act, 2011 will shift public perception and guarantee non-discriminatory procedures for registration of stateless persons.

With its precision in mandate and inclusiveness of all stakeholders, the task force will perhaps be more equipped to handle claims that go beyond the Kenyan boarders than a departmental unit within government would do.

UNHCR which is global leader for promoting identification, protection, prevention and reduction of statelessness will certainly play a critical role in the task force.

The ultimate goal for this should be to end statelessness in Kenya not only to ease life for affected communities but also to promote development. This is in the interest of Kenya in its journey towards realizing Vision 2030.

Twitter: @Duke_Mwancha