Human rights group looks to help those with no state and no future
“The back of a police van is the only place that feels like home.”
This is the plight of a young man, Singejeje Adel, who has no family and no country that regards him as theirs. He is stateless.
Adel, 23, was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania in 1992 and has never been recognised as a citizen of any country. His mother, his only known relative, died when he was 10 and left him with no documentation to prove his identity.
When he arrived in South Africa at the age of 16 he was quickly picked up by police for not having any documentation.
“The police would think I was joking with them. Some got angry and some just laughed. I don't even know how to explain my situation,” he said.
“I don't belong anywhere.”
Stateless people are unable to secure any rights and are unable to attend school, work, vote, marry, open a bank account or seek public medical attention.
“They are an undocumented group of people and the problem itself is invisible,” said Liesl Muller, head of the Statelessness Project at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).
LHR recently released a report containing recommendations on preventing statelessness in South Africa.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the problem of statelessness affects over 10 million people worldwide.
LHR said "hundreds of thousands" of people in South Africa are stateless. Groups especially at risk in SA, they said, include Zimbabwean-born migrants, orphans and abandoned children, unaccompanied foreign minors, victims of ID fraud and children born to migrants.
International law states that every person has the right to birth registration and to access nationality.
LHR is hoping to have legislation amended in order to ensure that government must investigate the circumstances of someone who is stateless.
Muller said that a surge of people claiming statelessness in order to gain citizenship is, however, unlikely. The first priority is to return people to their country of origin, not to make them citizens of SA.
Adel said he dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer. But first, he needs to be able to go to school.
In the meantime he relies on the goodwill of people to give him work, but he understands that employing a person with no documentation is illegal.
“I don't want to beg on the streets. I am healthy and strong, I don't drink or smoke and I am willing to work, but I can't,” he said.