Citizenship at the Margins: Barriers to Registration for Egyptian Nationals

In its work on statelessness in the MENA region, the IHRC has observed a growing problem: individuals who have not lived outside their home country and are entitled to the nationality of their country who lack formal citizenship and live as undocumented nationals. The IHRC, in its past work in Jordan and Lebanon, referred to these affected populations as “unperfected citizens,” or those who “are unregistered with the State because they or their parents could not obtain identification documents or otherwise perfect their citizenship.” In Egypt, the IHRC is employing the term “undocumented nationals” or “evidentiary statelessness” to better encapsulate the range of legal and administrative practices that can result in nationals of a state not carrying the full documentation (e.g., national identification cards or birth certificates to acquire such cards) and rights of a citizen. This leads to a form of invisibility that is often not captured by national statistics, particularly when governmental data-gathering mechanisms such as national censuses do not identify the gap between registered citizens and undocumented populations. Thus, while statelessness often appears easily defined under law, in fact, as the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion has noted, statelessness may not even “be apparent to the persons concerned.” A number of factors can cause evidentiary statelessness, including barriers to birth registration for children born in rural regions, documentation problems faced by indigenous or ethnic minorities, high fees for civil registration that prevent access to persons of low socioeconomic status, and gender discriminatory laws and practices. Inevitably, many of these factors intersect. Examining just one of these risk factors — registering births in rural areas in Egypt — illustrates the complexity of the problem of evidentiary statelessness.

Addressing Administrative Barriers for Rural Egyptian Nationals

Unpacking the single risk factor of being located in a rural area of Egypt can demonstrate how certain historically marginalized populations can fall on the at-risk-of-statelessness side of the line between discrimination and documented nationality. Much of Egypt’s population is distributed in rural areas with low population density and few governmental services. This begs a series of questions: how can individuals in rural areas of Egypt lacking the means to travel dozens or hundreds of kilometers access registration processes? What happens if they simply do not do so? In how many situations does this result in intergenerational (i.e., affecting multiple and successive generations) statelessness? Lack of quantitative data makes answers to these questions difficult to determine. Egypt has among the strongest civil registration programs in the MENA region, but this still involves many barriers to registration. With a population of over 100 million people, the fact that the census does not independently identify some minority populations, such as the Bedouin (with regard to identity), Amazigh (in terms of ethnicity), or Baha’i (in terms of certain minority religions) makes it difficult to identify specific at-risk populations. Even more difficult is identifying which individuals within these populations are most likely to be effectively stateless. These problems become particularly acute for those in rural areas where civil registration offices may be more difficult to access.

Credit: https://www.britannica.com/place/Egypt/Demographic-trends

Among the specific barriers faced by rural populations, especially with limited access to clinics or hospitals and high levels of poverty, are the practical difficulties of securing a birth certificate. The Egyptian Personal Status Law governs the process of securing Egyptian nationality. The law provides for a limited 15-day registration period for children to obtain a birth certificate (which is necessary to obtain practically any other form of identification). After that 15-day period, there are additional procedural hurdles, requiring additional fees, a declaration of paternity and estimate of the child’s age issued by the health office, and another return trip to the civil registry department. This raises further questions as to how these individuals can register births in areas where accessing registration within 15 days is a significant barrier, or where access to a hospital may not be guaranteed. It is easy to map these additional difficulties for populations in remote regions, but difficult to quantify the extent to which these barriers are faced by specific individuals within these vulnerable populations, particularly in countries with weak quantitative data.

The IHRC has learned that many of these problems are faced by certain segments of Bedouin populations, and that many such Bedouin communities are already marginalized in Egypt. For the Bedouin that live in disparate and remote corners of Egypt’s territory, such as South Sinai and the Eastern Desert, or in areas of ongoing conflicts or border disputes, such as North Sinai and Halayeb and Shallateen, the barrier of traveling to a government registration office is practically insurmountable. Bedouin individuals who are unregistered — some lack a government-issued ID — are unable to travel because they cannot pass security checkpoints in order to fulfill civil registration processes. These barriers of distance and travel are faced by Bedouin populations in particular, but are faced by many other individuals and groups in Egypt and demonstrate how even one barrier can prevent access to full citizenship status.

This is an example of how a single barrier can cause evidentiary statelessness. The IHRC’s research on other populations has focused on additional barriers to registration. My colleague Raven Pitarra, in introducing the IHRC’s current project in Egypt, highlighted similar issues with regard to gender-based barriers. Cases of gender-discriminatory citizenship policies have been a key component of the IHRC’s past reports; Khayla Ghantous (’21) and Claudia Bennett (’20) have each demonstrated how gaps in the law affect women and children’s citizenship status in Jordan and Lebanon. Despite reforms in the law, many Egyptian women have faced problems accessing citizenship for children born out of wedlock, regardless of the circumstances of the child’s birth. The requirement for a marriage certificate to register a child, combined with the problem of proving paternity in such cases, can be another difficult barrier to overcome. This issue has a discriminatory impact against women, and punishes both women and children for the circumstances of birth. These barriers can snowball for populations that are already marginalized, potentially leaving many Egyptian nationals legally “lesser” than others.

Credit: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/statelesswa

These components of the IHRC’s research underscore the complex nature of addressing problems of statelessness and citizenship in Egypt, where registration issues are faced unequally by different populations and by individuals within vulnerable populations. The right to a nationality is a fundamental right, as stated by Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by Article 29(1) of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and many social entitlements are linked to accessing citizenship. So long as there are gaps in government laws and policies, and governments fail to implement the laws fully and effectively, there will be communities or individuals who should be considered citizens of Egypt, and yet remain legally invisible.

Author Bio: Chris Creech is a second-year law student in Boston University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic and a staff member of the International Law Journal. He is a graduate of Reed College with a degree in English Literature. After graduation, he hopes to work in international human rights and international migration law.