The Saga of Statelessness in Dubai:

An Introduction

by Jake Benhabib BUSL’19

Most of us have heard of the Emirate of Dubai in the UAE: world’s tallest building; world’s largest indoor snow park. Some of us are familiar with Dubai’s darker side: Illicit finance, draconian criminal punishment. Few of us know about Dubai’s stateless and the Bedoon. Until recently, I didn’t either.

Since 2016, BUSL’s International Human Rights Clinic has been working to promote the rights of a community of stateless refugees in Dubai. The group was resettled by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the early-1970s and forms a small subset of the UAE’s much larger stateless population.

Stateless people are not considered nationals of any country. Some are born without nationality; others become stateless due to discrimination, lack of identity documentation, or other reasons. Myanmar’s ongoing persecution of its Rohingya Muslims — the world’s largest stateless population — poignantly illustrates how statelessness sometimes results from and feeds into state-sanctioned discrimination to produce disastrous human rights and refugee crises. Today, UNHCR estimates that there are over 10 million stateless people around the world; however, counting the stateless is a notoriously difficult task, which continues to elude governments, the UN, and civil society.[1]

In the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), stateless people are commonly referred to as “Bedoon,” (also transliterated “Bidoon” or “Bedun”), which is the Arabic word for “without.” It is short for “without nationality.” For a combination of historical, cultural, and legal reasons statelessness is widespread in the Gulf.[2] Even so, the UAE stands out among its neighbors in that remarkably few (estimates range from 10 to 12 percent) of its 9 million residents are citizens. Accordingly, roughly 90 percent of residents are either migrant workers or stateless. While the Emirati government does not release demographic data on the numbers of Bedoon in the UAE (because it does not acknowledge that statelessness exists), figures cited by the U.S. Department of State estimate the stateless population at between 20,000 and 100,000 individuals.

The principal cause of this high number is the UAE’s nationality law and policy. Unlike in the US, being born in the UAE does not in itself entitle you to citizenship, even if you don’t have access to any other nationality through your parents. Instead, practically the only way to be born an Emirati is if your father is an Emirati national.[3]

Many countries confer nationality automatically both to children born on their territory and to their nationals, regardless of place of birth. This dual approach is, in part, a way to avoid creating statelessness. If they didn’t, a child born to parents hailing from different countries with different rules might not have a claim to either of their nationalities.[4] Compounding the issue of nationality transmission further is the fact that the UAE confers nationality by patrilineal descent, so all children born on its territory (including those of Emirati mothers) are presumed to take the nationality of their father, regardless of whether he’s foreign or stateless. Similarly, because it’s extremely difficult to acquire citizenship through naturalization in the UAE, children of stateless couples are born stateless regardless of how long their parents have dwelled in the country.

Stateless individuals and families around the world typically experience fundamental disadvantages relative to citizens. In Dubai, our clients encounter legal and administrative barriers to their exercise of fundamental rights and to the provision of basic services every day. Although the UAE is a wealthy country with a high standard of living, our clients do not share it. This is because despite being born in Dubai, or having lawfully emigrated more than 40 years ago, our clients are still, under UAE law, mere migrant workers.

What makes this dynamic especially unjust for our clients is that they were actually once treated as legitimate permanent residents whose naturalization was merely a matter of time. For decades our clients struggled to integrate themselves and their children into Emirati society, and, in partial recognition of this fact, they were once issued UAE passports by the Ruler of Dubai. While these passports did not grant citizenship, they enabled our clients to enjoy lives similar to those of UAE citizens. Then, due to policy changes in the UAE at the federal level, the renewal of these passports suddenly stopped without explanation. Thus, through no fault of their own, our clients were reclassified as foreigners, and stripped of the rights and privileges they had come to enjoy, and in no small sense earned. To the UAE authorities, their past identities as refugees, and later as passport holders, ceased to exist.

Instead of creating a path to citizenship through naturalization for our clients and others, the UAE devised a novel “solution” to cover up its statelessness problem. Namely, since 2008, the UAE has been spending millions on passports purchased through the Union of Comoros’s Economic Citizenship Program, and coercing and deceiving its stateless into taking them as a purportedly intermediary step to UAE citizenship.[5]

Our clients were among those pressured to take these passports, which have neither brought them closer to UAE citizenship, nor enabled them to freely travel elsewhere. Because Comoros economic passports are not recognized under Comorian law to grant citizenship or residence rights,[6] several countries do not recognize them to meet the definition of a travel document under their immigration laws, and do not ordinarily issue visitor’s visas in them. (In other words, these countries will not admit visitors at all unless they know in advance where to deport them!)

Nevertheless, what’s worrisome is that our clients, as foreign passport holders, may (at least in the eyes of the UAE authorities) be put on a plane and shipped out of the country without much ceremony, or a formal deportation. Indeed, the UAE has already done this to stateless residents, dissidents, and advocates. The more prominent cases, such as that of the blogger Ahmad Abdulkhaleq in 2012, have ended with the extension of refugee protection to the exiled person. In other instances where the authorities have moved to displace ordinary people, media attention is scarce, as are solutions for the stateless.

In addition to this overarching aspect of the insecurity of their residence, our clients also experience everyday difficulties and inconveniences as a consequence of their status. Being “migrants,” our clients’ official documents, including driver’s licenses, are subject to frequent, costly, and time-consuming renewals every 1 or 2 years. (Emirati citizens’ licenses, by contrast, are good for 10 years). When our clients’ documents have expired through no fault of their own in the past, they have faced daily fines, lost their health insurance, and the right to enroll their children in public school.

Due to this insecurity and hardship many of our clients now seek to leave the UAE for resettlement abroad. One significant challenge to this is that few of our clients have qualifying relatives to sponsor them, and that many countries, including the US, have increasingly limited the options for immigration through family reunification. Moreover, even those among our clients who have qualifying relative sponsors abroad face multiyear wait times and backlogs for the processing of their applications.

Faced with these facts, in the past year the clinic has been focusing on advocacy in forums provided by the United Nations to raise awareness of statelessness in the UAE. We hope to show how the UAE has been violating its human rights obligations by erasing the legal identities and discriminating against our clients and other stateless people, and in turn persuade intergovernmental bodies and states to pressure the UAE to improve its policies. However, to attract the attention of the international community, our clinic needed to partner with other human rights organizations working in the region on related issues. Starting in September, that’s exactly what we began to do.

[More stories from this project coming up in the next few weeks!]

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[1] Laura Van Waas, Amal De Chickera, & Zahra Albarazi, The World’s Stateless: A New Report on Why Size Does and Doesn’t Matter, European Network on Statelessness (Dec. 15, 2014).

[2] Zahra Albarazi, Regional Report on Citizenship: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) (2017). @zalbarazi

[3] The other, far less prevalent way to acquire UAE citizenship by birth is if you are a foundling. (This is to say, abandoned infants whose paternity cannot be determined are adopted by the state and become Emirati nationals.)

[4] In such a hypothetical, neither country’s nationality laws would be discriminatory per se, they would just conflict to produce an undesirable outcome.

[5] This complex, and at times surreal “solution” has recently been written up extensively The work of journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is especially insightful. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, Who Loses When a Country Puts Citizenship Up for Sale? N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2018); Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, The Bizarre Scheme to Transform a Remote Island into the New Dubai, Guardian (Nov. 11, 2015).

[6] Even if the passports did authorize residence in Comoros, it is far from clear whether tens of thousands of long-standing UAE residents would readily uproot themselves and move to the poorest country in the Arab League, one which they had never visited, and had no cultural and linguistic ties to.

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.