The Right to Nationality

By Alys Brown

In a stuffy ballroom in an Amman hotel, a major research project is about to be unveiled. There is a buzz in the room as the Information and Research Centre (IRC) of the King Hussein Foundation discusses the first results of their EU-funded project on the discrimination facing Jordanian women who marry foreigners. Next to me are sitting two women who feel personally affected by project; Mai, a 45 year old Jordanian women who married an Egyptian and Farah, her 20 year old Jordanian-born daughter by that marriage. Because Jordanian women cannot pass on their nationality, Farah is not a Jordanian citizen and has to stay in the country on a renewable residency permit. She also, like her father, has to pay to access many public services and requires a permit to work.

65,000 Jordanian women are in the same position as Mai, with their husbands and Jordanian-born children not recognized as Jordanian citizens. IRC argues that the 50 million dinar it would take to incorporate these families into the state would be covered by the 60 million dinar direct benefit of doing so, and that there would be greater indirect benefits. There is a need to change Article 22 of the 1973 Residency Law, which denies residency to the foreign husband of a Jordanian woman. “The same article gives the interior minister the right to grant a five-year residency permit to the foreign wife of a Jordanian man, after which she can apply for citizenship,” IRC Director Nermeen Murad, emphasizing the clear gender discrimination.

Even the UN is not immune to this gender discrimination: for decades the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) did not give refugee status to the children of Palestinian refugee women who married non-refugee men. This not only prevented the children from accessing UNRWA’s free education, health care and social services but negated their claim to the right of return in the event it is ever eventually implemented. UNRWA has since recognised the injustice of this position but due to limited resources is only able to rectify it to a limited degree.

However, in some ways Mai and Farah are lucky. If Mai had married a stateless man, such as a Palestinian, the Jordanian law on citizenship would at least have conveyed citizenship on her children under article 3(4) of the 1954 law: Nationality being granted too “Any person born in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan of a mother holding Jordanian nationality and of a father of unknown nationality or of a Stateless father or whose filiation is not established”.

On the other hand, if Mai had married a man from a country where nationality is conveyed only to those born in the country (jus soli – for example, Brazil) instead of descent (jus sanguinis) her children would have been stateless, denied a nationality altogether. Alongside the stateless populations of the world such as the Palestinians, the Nubians of Kenya or the Rohingya of Burma, there are many children born who have ‘slipped through the net’ of nationality. Exactly how many, it is impossible to know given their undocumented status. Some of them are also children who might be entitled to nationality but cannot prove it because they are undocumented, for example the children of illegal immigrants who do not register their children’s birth for fear of drawing attention to their illegal status in the country. This is a denial of the most basic of rights; we can understand the right of nationality as ‘the right to have rights’ since rights are granted by states only to citizens. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to a nationality.

UNHCR has the mandate for tackling statelessness and it urges states to sign up to the two treaties on the matter (1954 and 1961). These treaties commit states to doing all they can to prevent statelessness by granting citizenship both through birth and through descent and to removing unreasonable barriers to its transmission. However, these treaties have gathered very few signatories despite their age. Children will continue to slip through the net until all nationality laws are standardised and gender discrimination is eradicated. And for Mai and Farah, it may still be a long wait until equality.

About the Author:

Alys Brown graduated from Cambridge University in 2009 and with an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from SOAS, University of London in 2010. Since then she has been gathering experience in the fields of gender, refugees and human rights, working with organisations including Minority Rights Group International, Fahamu Refugee Project and UNRWA.


Top picture: Stateless Bidun in Kuwait protest to demand government action on their claims for citizenship,as well as access to other rights.

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