Magazine article Forced Migration Review

The Lost Tribes of Arabia

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

The Lost Tribes of Arabia

Article excerpt

It is difficult to give precise figures of the number of stateless persons in the Arab region. Most countries in the region do not publish figures on the number of stateless communities in their midst. However, it is widely recognised that the number of stateless people in the Arab region is one of the highest in the world.

Exclusion and inclusion had been part of the process of state formation in the Arab region that took place when Ottoman rule ended and the European colonial powers divided up the Ottoman inheritance directly after the First World War. The emerging new sub-national states of Arabia cut through nomadic or semi-nomadic societies. The extended Bedouin tribes had for centuries moved with their animals without check points or border crossings.

Passports and identity documents were not only unknown but also undesirable devices brought by men with blue eyes, who wore trousers and funny hats. Many were suspicious of the new ways and chose not to have their names registered, or simply did not bother to do so as their way of life maintained the same rhythm it had always had. Even years after the newly born states where established, the Bedouin were still able to function as free and full citizens of these states. Papers did not have the meaning they have now and consequently thousands of people fell through the net and remained undocumented. The indigenous stateless communities in the Gulf region, today called the 'Bidoon', an Arabic word which means 'without [nationality]', are largely the victims of this process.

Foreign intrusion and armed conflict led to wide-ranging displacement and consequently to large numbers of stateless communities. The Arab-Israeli conflict has produced one of the largest refugee stateless communities in the world today as a result of the mass movement of Palestinians to other states after the 1948 and 1967 wars. More recent conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf region, the Horn of Africa and Western Sahara have generated a substantial amount of displacement and statelessness, though on a smaller scale than that of the Palestinians.

The rise of pan-Arab nationalism, the political turbulence that has swept the region in the last few decades and ethnic and religious tensions have led to further exclusion and marginalisation of minorities and deprivation of citizenship, as in the cases of the Kurds of the Levant and the Shiites in Iraq and parts of eastern Arabia.

Control of nationality

A chain of out-of-date laws that still regulate various aspects of citizenship such as immigration, the status of refugees, the status of women and the rights of children are to a large extent responsible for generating and maintaining the phenomenon of statelessness in the region. In their efforts to assert their authority, most of the emerging states seem to have adopted a narrow concept of citizenship and restrictive nationality laws. Citizenship is largely conceived of as granted by the head of state and not as a fundamental right. There is, in most cases, no jurisdictional mechanism therefore to challenge the executive order to deprive someone or a group of people of their citizenship.

Most of the countries in this region adopted rigid criteria to grant their nationality based only on the principle of jus sanguinis through the male line, the husband or father. Children therefore inherit statelessness from their stateless fathers. Women have no rights in most of these countries to pass on their nationality, if they have one, to their stateless children. Most of these countries are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and almost none is party to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on the Status of Stateless Persons.

Thus, there is no way to grant citizenship to immigrants or refugees in these countries. Naturalisation of foreigners and citizens of other Arab states is either prohibited by law or very restricted and left to the discretion of the rulers without clear criteria. …

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