The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law”. Statelessness is one of the major concerns in the Republic of South Sudan (hereinafter, South Sudan), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working with the Government of South Sudan to ensure access to nationality and nationality documentation by stateless persons and persons at risk of statelessness in the country. The purpose of this study is to collect and analyse current and reliable data on the present situation in South Sudan, in support of UNHCR’s efforts to address statelessness in the country.
Causes of Statelessness in South Sudan
In the wake of South Sudan’s independence from the Republic of the Sudan, the latter’s decision to revoke nationality from any individual qualifying for South Sudanese nationality has left many people at risk of statelessness. However, South Sudan is not party to either the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Ambiguities in South Sudan’s 2011 Nationality Act and associated Nationality Regulations , including the use of terms such as “indigenous”, contribute to an increased risk of statelessness in South Sudan.
With regards to administrative and procedural risk factors, the Directorate of Nationality, Passports and Immigration (DNPI) suffers from a problematic lack of capacity, with various misinterpretations of the Nationality Act and its Regulations by DNPI officers undermining access to nationality documentation. In particular, some DNPI Officers interpret the alternative conditions set in Section 8(1)(a) and 8(1)(b) as cumulative conditions to acquire nationality by birth and thus, requiring both conditions to be fulfilled despite the clear use of the word ‘or’ in the Nationality Act.
Problematically, possession of nationality documentation in South Sudan is widely seen as being synonymous with possessing a nationality, including among DNPI officers; in effect, lack of documentation calls nationality itself into question. The Nationality Regulations provide for two pieces of documentation: a nationality certificate which confirms that the holder is a South Sudanese national, and a national identity card which confirms the identity of the holder. The latter is the recognised personal identification document in South Sudan and can only be issued to individuals with nationality certificates. In practice, however, the DNPI is currently only issuing nationality certificates and has not yet started issuing national identity cards, as legislation regarding the national identity cards has yet to be passed into law.
To obtain a nationality certificate, the applicants are requested to provide a birth certificate or age assessment if unavailable, two passport size photos, a photocopy of a witness’s identity document, and a signed application form. Although not clearly stated in the legislation, applicants must also in practice provide a residence certificate and specification of blood group. The applicants are additionally required to pay for the issuance of the nationality certificate, and undergo a formal interview by the DNPI before the nationality certificate can be issued.
Although the states of South Sudan are governed on the basis of decentralisation as per the Transitional Constitution of 2011, nationality certificates continue to be processed in Juba, causing lengthy delays in the processing of applications at the state level. While the DNPI aspires to maintain a presence in each of the country’s thirty-two new states, many offices are not operational due to logistical constraints and security concerns; the majority of applicants from field locations find themselves obliged to travel to headquarters in Juba in order to process their application, at significant financial cost. The breakdown in South Sudan’s capacity to register births has posed another challenge, necessitating formal age assessments as an alternative to birth certificates, pending the approval of the Civil Registration Bill.
Finally, contextual factors specific to South Sudan also contribute to the risk of statelessness. Widespread displacement resulting from an ongoing internal armed conflict undermines the ability of applicants to fulfil the requirements of applications for nationality certificates. Poverty also undermines access to nationality certificates procedures: in light of the financial crisis, the DNPI has recently increased fees in response to inflation, barring access to nationality certificates for an increasing number of potential applicants. Awareness of importance of nationality certificates and relevant procedures is also limited, especially in rural areas.
Populations at Risk of Statelessness
Limited efforts to raise awareness on behalf of the DNPI have concentrated predominantly on urban, educated segments of the population; despite work by mobile teams, populations in rural areas are less likely to be in possession of nationality certificates. Meanwhile, costs incurred throughout the application process can prevent vulnerable and low-income individuals from accessing nationality certificates, while displaced persons face further challenges in fulfilling necessary requirements.
Challenges to access to nationality certification also relate to ethnicity. Trans-boundary communities such as the Madi and Acholi face further difficulties in proving their South Sudanese origins. The Nationality Regulations request that confirmation be provided that applicants from trans-boundary communities are indeed from the South Sudanese part of the community, which, in practice, includes additional recommendation letters and verification from local leaders.
Most problematically, certain nomadic pastoralist groups – such as the Falata – are systematically denied access to application procedures for nationality certification by virtue of being considered as non-South Sudanese by DNPI officers, mirroring challenges that the group has faced throughout its history in seeking nationality recognition in Sudan. This systematic denial of nationality certificates renders these groups effectively stateless, leaving them particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Impact and Mitigation
While lack of nationality documentation does not necessarily equate to statelessness, the impacts in South Sudan are often synonymous. Lack of nationality certificates exposes affected individuals to serious political, economic, and social deprivations, undermining access to basic rights and services. Nationality certificates are necessary to open a bank account, register for school, own property, seek formal employment, or vote in elections. Those who are unable to secure nationality certificates are also denied protection afforded by this documentation, and are reported to face risk of arrest or forced UNHCR and partners have been working to reduce the risk of statelessness and increase access to nationality certificates; financial support for payment of fees associated with the nationality application procedure has proven to be particularly successful. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) also have an important role to play in identifying and assisting persons at risk of statelessness due to their close ties to communities. However, their role continues to be limited, and support in the form of funding and capacity-building is needed to engage CSOs in the fight against statelessness.
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