x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A mechanism to reach out to UAE's stateless

For "people of unknown citizenship", documentation – and all the legal rights and benefits it confers – has been little more than an aspiration. Last Wednesday, that aspiration took a step towards reality.

For "people of unknown citizenship", documentation - and all the legal rights and benefits it confers - has been little more than an aspiration. Last Wednesday, that aspiration took a step towards reality.

An order by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, put in motion a plan to consider the citizenship claims of thousands of stateless UAE residents, which will for the first time establish a clear mechanism for the timely review of applications. Until now, reviews have been conducted with little transparency, seemingly in an ad hoc manner.

Many in the UAE have waited for the day when legitimate claims for legal recognition could be made in an orderly, regulated fashion. It has been a seemingly intractable issue that grows with each new birth and each new marriage. The presidential directive, detailed last week by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, brings the UAE closer to that goal.

Officially there are an estimated 10,000 people living in the seven emirates who are considered stateless, but many estimates put the number far higher. The first step for this review will be simply to count these residents, and better understand each individual's circumstances. Many have roots in the country, but their parents and grandparents failed to get proper documentation in its early days; many more have roots in other nations, from Palestine to Bangladesh. The committee's task will be to determine who has the legal right to UAE citizenship.

Having spent years - in some cases decades - without a formal nationality, stateless people have suffered travel restrictions and a lack of access to services, not to mention the indignity of not belonging to any nation.

The announcement is the latest in a series of moves to expand citizenship rights, underscoring gradual progress being made on such cases. Since December, the "Children of Emirati Mothers Committee" has extended citizenship to children of Emirati mothers and non-Emirati fathers. In just a few months, 1,117 people were granted citizenship.

That move affirmed the legal rights of children of Emirati women, breaking ground in a region where citizenship is traditionally handed down by the father. Wednesday's move takes the committee's work a significant step further. In a country where citizens are a minority, and where citizenship comes with cradle to grave support, citizenship rights must be guarded in every case. This is a new tool on the UAE's road to development.