A First Glimpse into Statelessness in North Africa: Egypt

IHRC is currently in its third year of a long-term project focused on statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The project aims to identify existing norms that can be used to fill protection gaps for stateless populations in countries in the MENA while connecting stakeholders to create a statelessness network in the region. Researching and identifying commonalities within the MENA region’s laws and agreements will help generate a conversation about statelessness and establish a regional statelessness network. Former Clinic student Kristina Fried’s blog post, The Campaign to End Statelessness in Lebanon provides a comprehensive background on statelessness and the pertinent international Conventions. Over the past two years, the Clinic has engaged with Lebanon and Jordan, and this year the clinic is moving its focus to North Africa to examine statelessness in Egypt.

A UNHCR “I Belong” campaign image created by United Colors of Benetton

Statelessness in Egypt

According to UNHCR, there are an estimated 380,000 stateless persons in the MENA. Within the region, Egypt is host to many stateless communities, including the Palestinian diaspora, nomadic communities, and refugees from conflicts in Syria, Eritrea, and others. Like other countries in the region, Egypt has not ratified the key United Nations treaties on statelessness, i.e. the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Status Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Although Egypt has not yet ratified either treaty, meaning that there is no treaty-based definition for who is stateless in the country, stateless populations are vulnerable in Egypt for a number of reasons. Egypt has taken steps through its domestic laws to address some of the causes of statelessness, including some efforts that have not been taken by other MENA countries. More than 50 countries have domestic nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of gender and 25 countries retain nationality laws that deny women the right to confer citizenship on their children on an equal basis with men. For example, in Lebanon and Jordan, discriminatory nationality laws only allow nationality to be passed down paternally, leaving children born to non-citizen fathers without a claim to nationality — even if their mothers are citizens. In contrast, Egypt’s nationality laws do not discriminate on the basis of gender in the context of Egyptian citizens conferring their nationality to their children. As of 2004 Egyptian nationality law allows children born to Egyptian mothers (but non-Egyptian fathers) to claim Egyptian citizenship. Egypt’s nationality law does, however, discriminate on the basis of gender such that Egyptian women cannot confer their nationality to their noncitizen spouse. Our research analyzes how these laws are actually implemented, as it is how the laws are carried out that affects the ability of women and children to obtain citizenship in the country. Egypt’s nationality legislation is a particular focus for our long-term project; implementation, and not just the existence, of nondiscriminatory nationality laws will be one of the key focus areas of study for this project.

Additionally, statelessness in refugee communities in Egypt proves to be a major issue that would require different legal and policy changes. Due to UNHCR’s adoption of the 1969 Organization of African Unity’s Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (“OAU Refugee Convention”) in March 2004, Egypt saw a massive increase in the size of their refugee population, even before the Syrian crisis. This is because the OAU Refugee Convention defines “refugee” more broadly to include “every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.” UNHCR’s adoption of the broader OAU definition in 2004 has meant that the population of persons officially ‘recognized’ as refugees in the country dramatically increased. At the same time as the recognized refugee population in Egypt has grown, available spaces for resettlement of refugees outside the country have shrunk, causing a dramatic rise in protracted statelessness among refugees.

Specific barriers to refugees’ access to nationality include arduous birth registration processes, confusing registration and residence cards for refugees and asylum seekers, and the lack of access to identification documents and permits for legal residence. Refugees (and migrants, as well), must overcome a series of barriers in order to register their marriages, divorces and births of their children in Egypt. Many also have inadequate or unavailable identity documents from their home countries, making it more difficult to obtain identity documents in Egypt. All of these obstacles mean that proving or securing nationality in the country of origin of the parents or in Egypt for either parent or child, is an extremely complex problem. Proving a child’s birth in Egypt and the nationality status of the child includes the following:

· the requirement to produce a valid marriage certificate of both parents, acceptable to Egyptian authorities, in order to register the birth of the child;

· the requirement to prove legal residence in Egypt;

· the requirement to produce valid and unexpired identity documents for the parents; and

· establishing the parent-child relationship when the child is born other than in a clinic or hospital where a birth notification from a doctor or registered health practitioner is unavailable.

These registration requirements prove to be huge barriers for refugee communities, particularly when consulates do not make their services readily available to their nationals, or have arduous requirements for issuing marriage and birth certificates. Consular access is particularly problematic for those refugees who have fled their countries and are fearful to approach their government representatives for any reason. Additionally, lack of awareness of requirements and Egypt’s short registration time periods, such as its 15 day deadline to register the birth of a child, present further administrative barriers for refugee communities.

Addressing Statelessness and Moving Forward

Due to the amendments it has made to its nationality laws, Egypt is poised to be a leader on eradicating statelessness in the MENA region. However, whether Egypt is committed to implementing its gender-neutral nationality law requires further investigation. Our research and fieldwork includes interviewing a range of experts and organizations to determine how Egypt’s legal changes with regard to nationality are being carried out. With regard to the issues of statelessness or persons at risk of statelessness in the refugee (and some migrant) communities, we are also interviewing in-country stakeholders to better understand the problems these communities face. Finally, we are soliciting the input of a wide range of organizations and individuals to identify potential solutions to the problems of statelessness in Egypt that can also apply to the rest of the MENA region.

Learn more about statelessness and our project’s fieldwork in Lebanon and Jordan by reading our previous blogs: Children’s Nationality Rights: The Case of Stateless Children in Jordan, Statelessness in the Middle East: First Lebanon, Now Jordan, Gender-Discriminatory Nationality Law Multiplies Statelessness in Lebanon, and The Campaign to End Statelessness in Lebanon.

Map with a breakdown of asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt from UNHCR Egypt’s September 2020 Monthly Statistical Report

Author Bio: Raven Pitarra is a second-year law student in Boston University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic. She graduated summa cum laude from Binghamton University in 2018 with a degree in political science and linguistics. Raven is also a member of Boston University School of Law’s chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project and a staff member of the Boston University Law Review.