“I was told by officials that I was no longer Sudanese, and that I had to get South Sudanese citizenship and identification documents. I headed to the South Sudan embassy only to find that I am not recognised as South Sudanese either, and I was told to get the Sudanese citizenship papers,” said Iman Hassan Benjamin, a 23 year old woman who has had no identification card or citizenship since the independence of South Sudan in 2011.
Following independence, the Sudanese Nationality Act of 1994 was amended to remove nationality from hundreds of thousands of people who might be eligible for South Sudanese citizenship; they were immediately put at risk of statelessness. Article 10 (2) of the Act states: “A person will automatically lose his Sudanese nationality if he has acquired, de jure or de facto, the nationality of South Sudan.” Although Sudanese mothers can pass their nationality on to their children if the father is a foreigner, they cannot grant it to their children if the father is South Sudanese. The law does not allow dual citizenship with South Sudan.
Iman was born to a Sudanese mother and a South Sudanese father in Alhasaheisa, a small town to the south of Khartoum. She was 17 years old when she went to get her citizenship card and national identification number issued in order to get her high school certificate and enrol in university. With the support of PLACE Center for Legal Aid she filed applications for citizenship with Sudan’s Ministry of Interior, filed administrative complaints, went to court, filed a constitutional appeal and a complaint to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC). In spite of positive responses from the constitutional court, and from the Sudanese government in response to her complaint before the ACERWC, there is still no timeframe or indication of practical steps she can take to get her Sudanese citizenship. “Maybe if this was a case that attracted publicity I could get it resolved in no time, but because there is no publicity I may have to wait years to get my citizenship papers.”
I am not South Sudanese either, so where do I belong?
When Iman went to the South Sudan embassy in Khartoum to apply for South Sudanese citizenship and identification papers, she was told she was not South Sudanese because she does not look like South Sudanese people, she does not speak their local languages and she has never been to South Sudan. “I did not know what to do or where I belonged,” she said.
Iman did not want to fight to gain South Sudanese citizenship because she simply does not know anything about South Sudan. Her forefathers had lived and died in Sudan. For her there is nothing and no one to return to in the South.
According to Refaat Mekkawi, the director of PLACE Center for Legal Aid, not only are children born to South Sudanese fathers and Sudanese mothers at risk of statelessness, there are two other groups mostly overlooked: border tribes and nomads such as the Mbororo people. “Those people have issues with the government of South Sudan and a separate issue with the government of Sudan. Neither government wants them, they are largely ignored by the international community. They are unaware of their situation until - for instance - they decide to undertake Haj and find they cannot get a Sudanese passport.” explains Mekkawi.
Discrimination based on gender and ethnicity
Gender discrimination is manifested in the law as children of a South Sudanese mother and a Sudanese father do not have difficulties acquiring Sudanese nationality, but it’s seemingly impossible for the children of Sudanese mothers. “In a workshop we organised,” says Mr Mekkawi,”I asked more than 40 of our female clients who are mothers to half South Sudanese kids the following question: if they could go back in time and were made aware of the legal consequences of being married to a South Sudanese man, would they choose to proceed with the marriage? 90% of them said they would not have gone ahead because of the situation their children are facing.” Since 2011, the PLACE Centre has taken on more than 970 citizenship related cases of which around 600 are birth certificate applications; there are two cases before the constitutional court and a complaint before the ACERWC.
Mekkawi believes that the actual number of people who are adversely affected by the 2011 amendment to the Sudanese Nationality Act is far bigger than the number of cases PLACE has supported. He elaborates:
“People mostly do not go and ask for their citizenship when their father is South Sudanese and the mother is Sudanese because they fear being stereotyped as rebels and affiliates of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M). There is a social stigma attached to Sudanese women marrying South Sudanese men that holds people back from challenging the authorities.”
The uncertain status of these families adds another burden on women already working as the main breadwinner for the family. South Sudanese men have been barred from enrolling in public service since 2011, and as the majority previously served in the police and the army for years they can now only pursue informal businesses. They are also struggling to receive their service pensions.
In November 2017, activists launched the 'I am Sudanese' campaign calling on the Sudanese authorities to grant nationality to children from Sudanese mothers and South Sudanese fathers.
I am no one
When asked about the consequences of not having citizenship papers, Iman explained:
“If anything happened to me, like an accident for instance, how would people know who I was? I wanted to visit my aunt in Cairo but of course I cannot. I was lucky to find a college that will accept me without my citizenship and identification papers but now I cannot get my certificate and look for employment opportunities.”
These obstacles are not limited to Iman, but affect countless numbers of children in Sudan, says Refaat Mekkawi. He says there are signs of psychological stress in his clients’ children mostly caused by being denied Sudanese citizenship and classed as stateless. “It is just like telling them, you are undesired, you are unrecognised, you are not Sudanese and you are worth less than a foreigner.”
Foreigners residing legally in Sudan can access education, but for children at risk of statelessness access to education remains a huge challenge. There are children at 6 and 7 years old who are denied birth certificates because of their South Sudanese nationality, and then find birth certificates are mandatory to be enrolled in schools. There is also the issue of the cost of education as they are treated as foreigners and they need to pay for schooling in hard currency.
Access to health care is also a big issue for people at risk of statelessness because they are not covered by health insurance and this makes it harder for them to access health services. They also cannot register their properties as their homes under their own name because they lack official documentation.
We have served this country but where are our pensions?
Refaat Mekkawi said, “There are countless court cases of people demanding pensions for South Sudanese who served in the police and army before the independence of South Sudan in 2011. We have succeeded in getting pensions for a few former military officers, but most fail because of the lengthy procedures and bureaucracies."
Iman Hassan’s statelessness case is a violation of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
7Dnews contacted Ibrahima Kane, a human rights activist, an expert in statelessness and the African human rights system, about Iman Hassan’s complain before the African Charter on the Right and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). He explained that Iman’s case is a clear example of discrimination on grounds of nationality and violates the ACRWC.
“Sudan’s constitutional court upheld Iman’s appeal and ruled that the Sudanese authorities should have never stopped Iman from getting Sudanese citizenship because under the Sudanese constitution and law, women are granted the right to pass their citizenship to their children,” said Kane.
The law is not aligned with the ACRWC because it says every Sudanese can have dual nationality except the nationality of South Sudan, and this amounts to discrimination on the basis of nationality. Sudan’s constitutional court has previously ruled in favour of granting Sudanese nationality to Adil Burai in 2017 whose mother is Sudanese and whose father is of South Sudanese origin. Those constitutional court rulings were regarded as victories by human rights activists in Sudan and across the continent.
On Iman’s case Kane elaborated saying, “Iman was Sudanese by the time she was born, the independence of South Sudan should not have affected her situation. To be a national of a country if you are a child you follow what your parents are. Iman was 17 by the time she was trying to get to university and the only parent she had at that time was her mom who is Sudanese. This case is a violation of the ACRWC which states that a child has the right to a nationality. Iman was stateless and Sudan should have avoided this situation.”
Iman’s case and the violations of the ACRWC strains the government of Sudan’s attempts to host the secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child or ACERWC. Sudan has proposed hosting the secretariat for the past five years and as result the 30th session of the committee was held in Khartoum in December 2017 to assess the technical capacities for hosting the secretariat. The final decision will be made during May - June of 2018.
The government of Sudan has taken steps to change this situation, with Ministers approving amendments to the nationality law that grant Sudanese nationality to children from South Sudanese father and Sudanese mother. Civil society and activists welcomed the move.
7Dnews approached the spokesperson of Sudan’s Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice and the National Human Rights Commission for comments, but they did not respond yet.