Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Azliya's story reminds us of the struggles of the stateless

Ten million people around the world live in the shadows, with no documents or nation

Amnesty applicants await their turn at the application centre in Al Awir. Antonie Robertson / The National
Amnesty applicants await their turn at the application centre in Al Awir. Antonie Robertson / The National

The story of Azliya, a Sri Lankan mother who has spent 22 years struggling to raise her four children after her husband abandoned them, is further evidence that the UAE’s visa amnesty has been an humanitarian lifeline for more than 30,000 living in the shadows. Over the past three months, the crowds seeking either penalty-free repatriation or the chance to work legally have dwindled from hundreds daily to merely dozens. Regardless, the deadline has been extended by a month to December 1 as there are still others to be brought in from the cold.

From the 18-year-old who was born in Dubai and existed without a paper trail his entire life, accruing an impossibly large fine, to the couple imprisoned in a villa and forced to work for nothing, the poignant stories of liberated lives have inspired disbelief and incredulity. But these are the lucky ones. The scale of the response to the amnesty offers a glimpse of a problem that blights the entire world. Documentation has never been more important now than it is in the modern global economy but the UN estimates there are 10 million stateless people in the world today, an invisible population which dwarfs that of the entire UAE. These citizens of nowhere are deprived of access to education, healthcare and the myriad other benefits of state protection by circumstances from the mundane to the catastrophic, from domestic upheaval to geopolitical disaster. How many among them, given the chance, might have much to offer humankind? As the UN points out, the ranks of the stateless once included the likes of Albert Einstein, the artist Marc Chagall and the ballerina Anna Pavlova.

The Bedouin who roamed the deserts of Arabia cared little for arbitrary borders and had no need of documentation. Times change. Today the holder of a UAE passport, one of the world’s most widely accepted, can travel visa-free to 140 countries. For the UAE to offer the stateless within its borders the chance to begin their own journey towards a fresh start is more than merely a compassionate gesture. It is an example that other states must emulate if the UN is to achieve its ambition of eradicating global statelessness by 2024.