This story is part of an AlertNet special multimedia report on statelessness
By Gopal Sharma and Nita Bhalla
KATHMANDU/NEW DELHI (AlertNet) – Nina Tamang looks lost as she gazes down the hilltop at the neat terraces of maize crops from the veranda of her red mud-stone home on the outskirts of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
"I don't have any identity," says the petite 18-year-old in jeans and a t-shirt, as faded blue and maroon Buddhist prayer flags tied to nearby bamboo poles flutter in the cool breeze of the Himalayas.
"I am stateless because I have not been given the citizenship certificate by the country I was born and am living [in].”
Despite her mother being a Nepali national, Nina cannot become a citizen of Nepal. Her father is absent, having left her mother after Nina was born, and she has no official proof of his nationality – a must in this patriarchal country where by de facto only men can transfer nationality to their children.
Living without an official identity in one of the world’s poorest nations, the teenager says she faces an uncertain future; one where she cannot go to college to improve her life, one where she cannot travel abroad for work to support her family and one where she cannot start a business, despite a desperate need for jobs in this war-ravaged South Asian nation.
But Nina may not be alone. U.N. officials and human rights groups warn millions of children in Nepal are at risk of becoming stateless – without nationality, unprotected and with no access to basic rights – if a special assembly preparing the country’s new constitution approves strict criteria on citizenship.
Humanitarians say the criteria in the proposed new charter discriminate against the hundreds of thousands of mixed marriages in Nepal, by granting children citizenship only if both parents are Nepali.
Furthermore, even if a foreign spouse wishes to take Nepali citizenship, rules dictate they can only be eligible after 15 years of legal residence in Nepal -- leaving their children in a protracted state of limbo.
If approved, it would make Nepal the second country in the world, after its tiny, isolated neighbour Bhutan, to demand both parents be nationals for a child to be eligible for citizenship.
“As it stands, the rules are extremely restrictive when it comes to transmitting citizenship by descent,” said a senior official from the United Nations in Nepal, who did not wish to be named.
“It can be one or two million children from these hundreds of thousands of mixed marriages who would be stateless. But it would not just stop there ... the children of these people would also be stateless. It would continue like this for generations.”
With no official documents, children of mixed marriages will not be able to go to college, have a passport or driving license, own land, vote or participate in elections or be entitled to a government pension. They would also face difficulties in seeking jobs, despite being born and brought up in Nepal.
UNHCR will launch a campaign on Thursday to highlight the plight of the world’s 12-15 million statelessness people, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1961 U.N. convention on reducing statelessness.
The convention, of which Nepal is not a signatory, explicitly states in its first article that nations must grant nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.
Government figures from 1995 estimated there were 800,000 people in Nepal without citizenship certificates, although experts believe more than double this number are now “undocumented.” Many are women, who have for decades faced restrictive citizenship rules.
Aid workers say the new criteria, if approved, will further exacerbate Nepal’s statelessness problems, adding that inhabitants of the country’s southern plains known as the Terai region – home to nearly half of Nepal’s 28 million people – are most at risk.
The Madheshi people of Terai are similar in language, dress, ethnicity and culture to Indians across the border in the adjacent states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Many migrate from either side to work as farmers or for petty trade and both peoples share strong family ties, connected through marriage.
Surrounded by the Himalayas, Nepal is better known for being the home of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, than for its poverty.
The United Nations estimates 86 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, partly due to a decade-long civil conflict with Maoist rebels which killed thousands, destroyed infrastructure and devastated the economy.
Despite a 2006 peace deal with the Maoists, political in-fighting has plagued Nepal’s opportunity to prove its political stability and prosperity in a region harbouring volatile hotspots such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Human rights campaigners say the citizenship rules will worsen the plight of many Nepalis such as the Madheshis, who feel marginalised by the hill people of the north and want better representation in government.
“Nepal has campaigned hard to break away from traditional feudal structures. The new constitution that is being drafted should reflect the aspirations of the citizenry for equality and comply with international norms,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director.
“The constitution should not go into some sort of regressive policy that seeks to constrict people from marrying anyone they choose by denying their children citizenship. It should provide that every child born in Nepal is guaranteed their right to acquire nationality and not be left stateless.”
Some Nepali politicians have defended the new rules, saying Nepal – a small country boxed in between the two most populous countries in the world, India and China – needs to protect the interests of its people from the growing dominance of others in the region.
Despite Kathmandu’s close ties with New Delhi, Nepal’s largest trade and economic partner, observers say many in Nepal feel threatened by having Asia’s third largest economy and its 1.2 billion people next door.
The countries’ warm bilateral ties have led to a 1,751-km open, porous border with lax immigration rules and no requirement for visas or work permits, leading to millions from both sides migrating to and fro, mainly for work opportunities.
While Nepalis have benefitted greatly from this arrangement, working mainly as maids or labourers in India and sending money back home to their families, some appear concerned that increasing numbers of Indians are opening businesses and factories in Nepal.
"We need to tighten the rules otherwise a small country like ours cannot take the pressure from big neighbours," said Pradeep Gwayali, a parliamentarian and a member of the panel which recommended the new rules, admitting it was to discourage Indians and Chinese from seeking Nepali nationality.
"No one will be stateless and children from mixed marriages can apply for citizenship after 15 years or they can opt for the citizenship of the country of their foreign parent."
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)
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EXPERT VIEWS – Did statelessness fuel the conflict in Congo? - George Fominyen, AlertNet
Brazil bill gives hope to Latin America’s stateless – Anastasia Moloney, AlertNet
FACTBOXES AND RESOURCES
FACTBOX: Stateless groups around the world - Emma Batha, AlertNet
FACTBOX: How countries have tackled statelessness - Astrid Zweynert, AlertNet
LINKS: The world's most invisible people? - AlertNet
HAVE YOUR SAY: What does it mean to be stateless? - Tim Large, AlertNet
How DNA is helping young Thais get citizenship – Plan International
‘Drowning nations’ threaten new 21st Century statelessness – Maxine Burkett, ICAP
No rights for stateless Rohingya fleeing Burma - Refugees International
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