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Civil genocide: Why threats to citizenship must not be ignored

by Laura van Waas | Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
Monday, 24 September 2018 08:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Haitians sleep on the street outside the Ministry of Interior and Police while waiting to register in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It’s hard to imagine that something as integral to our identity as our nationality could be taken from us at the stroke of a legislator’s pen or the bang of a judge’s gavel

Five years ago today, families across the Dominican Republic woke up to the news that they had lost their citizenship overnight. On 23 September 2013, the country’s Constitutional Court passed a ruling that stripped nationality from tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Long-standing stigma and discrimination against this population had devolved into their complete exclusion from the political community. It has been described as a “civil genocide”.

It’s hard to imagine that something as integral to our identity as our nationality could be taken from us at the stroke of a legislator’s pen or the bang of a judge’s gavel. Yet history is littered with examples. Russian exiles under the Soviet laws of the 1920s, Jews under the Reich citizenship laws enacted by Nazi Germany in the 1930-40s, Kurds in Syria under the “Arabisation” policy of the 1960s, Rohingya in Myanmar after the passing of an ethnicity-based citizenship law in the 1980s, and the list continues. Today, there are an estimated 15 million stateless people in the world – individuals and communities who are not recognized as citizens by any country.

Coming just as the international community was increasing its efforts to address statelessness, the Dominican Constitutional Court decision drew significant attention. Rosa, a lawyer and activist for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian Descent, recalls how “this day gave us the evidence of something that for years we had already felt, but that many disbelieved – the political games of some, the hate and discrimination of others, was proven.”

Five years on however, the problems endure. As Rosa explains, “the majority of those affected by the ruling remain stateless – some are waiting for their documents to be “returned” to them, while others have been forced as “foreigners” into an undefined naturalisation process”. Sadly, this is not unexpected. If there’s one thing that history makes very clear, it is that once you are cast out, it is a tremendous struggle to make your way back in. And those who are made stateless are almost always condemned to pass that on to their children, perpetuating exclusion for generations to come.

For those of us working to protect the right to a nationality, the five-year anniversary of the Dominican ruling is significant – not only for what it says about how readily the situation in that country has become entrenched, but because it is worryingly emblematic of a new generation of global threats to citizenship. Our work today is no longer just about finding ways to “correct” mistakes made in the past and promote inclusion for existing stateless communities. More and more, it is about trying to prevent what could perhaps be described as “citizenship creep”: newly emerging situations around the world where a long-standing claim to nationality is called into question. People who were once sure of their status as citizens are increasingly treated as suspect, included in a narrative about outsiders, asked to provide ever-more thorough proof of belonging and finding themselves teetering on the edge of the political community, with a very real risk of being removed altogether.

A pensioner caught up in the “Windrush” situation in the UK who needs cancer treatment is asked to produce documents issued more than half a century ago before he will be assisted under the National Health Service... A Hispanic man in Texas, USA, who tries to renew his passport is turned away until he can produce further proof of her birth in the country because the authenticity of his birth certificate is suddenly being questioned... Families in Assam, India, who are desperately hunting for evidence to demonstrate that they were present in the country before 1971 in order to get their names onto the new National Register of Citizens – with 4 million people at risk of losing their citizenship by the year’s end…

We follow these and other situations of “citizenship creep” with a dire sense of foreboding. How can we arrest progress down the slippery slope of alienation and ultimately dehumanisation that can, at its worst, open the door to unimaginable horrors, as it has for the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar?

Looking back to 23 September 2013, Rosa says “this day, they buried us alive: it (was) … turned us into stateless persons in our country, the ultimate form of rejection.” As ever more cracks become visible in citizenship around the world, we must pay close attention. As with so many things in life, when it comes to nationality, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Laura van Waas is a founder and Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.