24 November 2015, Johannesburg, South Africa – With tears streaming down his face Khumbulani Frederik Ngubane bravely shared the harrowing details of being stateless in South Africa with an audience moved by his story, on the occasion to mark the first anniversary of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024.
Born in South Africa to South African parents – a Zulu father and Xhosa mother – Ngubane has never been recognised as South African citizen having spent most of his childhood abroad. After his father died, Ngubane’s mother took him to Kenya when he was three years old. When he was ten, his mother passed away. He was then taken to Uganda by a family friend. When she died, Ngubane decided it was time to trace his South African roots.
He returned to South Africa, showing his birth certificate at the border. Soon after unfortunately, Ngubane lost his bag which contained his birth certificate in a hijacking. As his South African ID number cannot be traced and he been unable to locate any living relatives who can attest to his identity, Ngubane is effectively stateless. Without any proof of his South African citizenship, Ngubane has been arrested and detained several times.
Statelessness is a situation people finds themselves in if no country considers them to be a national under the operation of its law. Approximately ten million people in the world amongst them Ngubane, are stateless. UNHCR estimates that there is a child born stateless every ten minutes.
On one occasion he spent three months in the Lindela Repatriation Centre but he could not be deported because he never acquired citizenship or immigration status in Kenya and Uganda. Although he was eventually released Ngubane remains undocumented and is often arrested due to suspicion of being illegally in the country. The process to receive documentation and get permanent residence in South Africa has been ongoing for seven years.
Ngubane’s predicament is one of several highlighted at a photo exhibition to mark the first anniversary of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024, a collaboration between the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and Constitution Hill.
UNHCR and LHR commissioned photographer Daniel Boshof to take the portraits as a way to explain how the issue of statelessness impacts individuals and families. The Old Fort Mess Hall at Constitution Hill, a former prison which is a symbol of arbitrary detention during South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the strong images of people who are stateless in South Africa, gave a voice to the frustration and indignity their situation places them in.
Opening the exhibition, Veronica Modey-Ebi, UNHCR’s Deputy Regional Representative for Protection said, “In many countries, stateless persons suffer exclusion from cradle to grave. At birth, they are denied a legal identity. Access to education, health care, formal marriage and economic opportunities is limited. And even when they die, they are refused the dignity of an official burial.”
The right to a nationality is enshrined in various universal and regional human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Right. UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign falls within its mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness by 2024, a bold but important goal.
“Moving toward an inclusive approach, embracing ‘unity in diversity’, may well prove to be an essential step towards the inclusion of formerly stateless individuals,” added Modey-Ebi.
As Ngubane implored, “I see potential in myself, but to unlock this potential, I need citizenship.”
The bitter irony of being a stateless person is that individuals find themselves stateless through no fault of their own. In most cases statelessness could be resolved with minor changes in existing laws. Ongoing problems with obtaining proper documentation therefore falls back on an unwillingness by States in recognizing the basic rights of persons.
The process for Ngubane to receive documentation and get permanent residence in South Africa has been ongoing now, for seven years. Assisted by LHR, Ngubane awaits the outcome of his appeal, which is expected in February 2016, unsure whether this time, he will be recognized as South African.
By Gert Bruininkx in Johannesburg edited by Tina Ghelli
To learn more about statelessness and to sign the Open Letter urging governments to make the necessary legal changes to end statelessness, visit, http://www.unhcr.org/ibelong/.