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COVID-19: Vaccinating stateless people in South Africa

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COVID-19: Vaccinating stateless people in South Africa

Having no nationality of any country, this group is often left out of essential services
From Africa Renewal: 
21 January 2022
SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images
US opera singer and goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR Barbara Hendricks (L) speaks with a stateless woman on June 26, 2014 in a neighborhood of Abidjan during her visit to Ivory Coast.
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Clad in a torn and tattered orange overall, 25-year-old Brandon Ndlovu cuts a lone figure at Benoni, in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s busiest shopping centres.  He does not feel part of the shoppers on the streets because he has not been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Mr. Ndlovu is considered ‘stateless’ and hence is often left out of government plans and services. In this case, lack of identification has seen him, and his family miss out on COVID-19 vaccination.   

Mr. Ndlovu was born in 1996 in an independent South Africa to both South African parents, also born of South African parents, while in exile in Mozambique during the fight against the apartheid.

On their return to South Africa, none of the family members could get identification papers. Mr. Ndlovu has no kind words for the authorities over the way they handled the identification issue, and now the vaccination drive.

What is statelessness?

The international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency tasked with protecting the rights of refugees, displaced people and those that are stateless. In simple terms, a stateless person does not have the nationality of any country.

Stateless people can be found in all regions of the world, and while some are born stateless, others become stateless. UNHCR estimates that there were about 4.2 million stateless people globally in 2019. There were about 10,000 stateless people in South Africa by 2016 and the numbers have since gone up.

Brandon Ndlovu
Brandon Ndlovu

Being stateless can have a severe, lifelong impact on the affected, including lack of access to education, health care, marriage, and job opportunities, and even the dignity of an official burial and a death certificate when they die. Besides, many pass on their statelessness to their children, who then pass it on to the next generation.

Being undocumented is not the same as being stateless. However, lack of birth registration can put people at risk of statelessness as a birth certificate provides proof of where a person was born and parentage – key information needed to establish a nationality

According to the Institute for Security Studies, in 2019, four of the nine African countries with the biggest stateless populations are Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Mr. Ndlovu is however optimistic: “On numerous occasions, I have tried to get vaccinated, but I have always turned away for not having any identification document. This has left me vulnerable to the deadly COVID-19. With the news coming in that the government is looking at possibilities of taking this programme to stateless people, I am hopeful that some of us will be included as well.”

Thelma’s case

It is a similar case for Thelma Dube, a Zimbabwean who moved to South Africa in 2015 in search of greener pastures. Unfortunately, Ms. Dube has since become stateless after losing her Zimbabwean identification card. Efforts to apply for a new one at the Zimbabwean consulate have not been successful. 

This has impacted negatively on her efforts to get vaccinated as most of the institutions mandated to carry out the exercise continue to ask for identification.

How people become statelessness

People usually acquire a nationality automatically at birth, either through their parents or the country in which they are born. 

Stateless people are found in all regions of the world. The majority of them were born in the countries in which they have lived their entire lives.

However, one or more of the following factors can give rise to statelessness, according to UNHCR:-

  • A significant cause of statelessness is discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, or gender. 
  • Non-inclusion of specific groups in the body of citizens for discriminatory reasons is linked to protracted and large-scale statelessness in the country of birth. 
  • States can also deprive citizens of their nationality through changes in law using discriminatory criteria that leave whole populations stateless. In fact, the majority of the world’s known stateless populations belong to minority groups. 
  • Gender discrimination in nationality laws is a significant cause of childhood statelessness. Laws in some 25 countries do not let women pass on their nationality on an equal basis with men. Consequently, children can be left stateless when fathers are stateless, unknown, missing or deceased.
  • Gaps in nationality laws are a significant determinant of statelessness. Every country has laws which establish the circumstances under which someone acquires nationality or can have it withdrawn. If these laws are not carefully drafted and correctly applied, some people can be excluded and left stateless. An example is children who are of unknown parentage in a country where nationality is acquired based on descent from a national. Fortunately, most nationality laws recognize them as nationals of the state in which they are found.
  • When people move from the countries where they were born, conflict of nationality laws can give rise to the risk of statelessness. For example, a child born in a foreign country can risk becoming stateless if that country does not permit nationality based on birth alone and if the country of origin does not allow a parent to pass on nationality to children born abroad.
  • With the emergence of new states and changes in borders, specific groups can be left without a nationality. Where new countries allow nationality for all, ethnic, racial, and religious minorities frequently have trouble proving their link to the country. In countries where nationality is only acquired by descent from a national, statelessness will be passed on to the next generation.
  • Statelessness can also be caused by loss or deprivation of nationality. In some countries, citizens can lose their nationality simply from having lived outside their country for a long period of time.
  • Individuals may be at risk of statelessness if they cannot prove that they have links to a State.

South Africa has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, the country has reported 3,568,900 cases and 93,707 deaths as of mid-January 2021. Only 27.67 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

“I have tried to apply for refugee status to no avail. I have on numerous occasions visited vaccination centres, but their stance has been the same, no identification, no vaccination,” she told Africa Renewal.

Good government initiative 

Despite the setback, the government is doing something about the situation. 

South Africa’s National Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale is optimistic that the move by the government to look into the issue and make changes to the existing policies on the acquisition of identification cards and access to COVID-19 vaccination will help stateless people to get vaccinated as well as get identification cards.

“The process to have stateless people vaccinated is currently underway. We are working with several community-based human rights organisations based in the provinces. We therefore call upon all undocumented people to visit their nearest vaccination centres especially pop-up sites which have been created specifically for them to be vaccinated,” said Mr. Mohale.

The government has also relaxed demands for undocumented people and their families to show identification cards in order to get vaccinated. 

He said: “During this process, for now, those that get vaccinated without identification will be registered in a different register from those that have proof of identity.”

Move applauded

The national director of Lawyers for Human Rights, a local non-profit organization that supports marginalized and vulnerable people, Wayne Ncube, applauded the government’s move to vaccinate stateless people.

“We have been working hard to make sure stateless and undocumented people are vaccinated. These people have a right to healthcare at all health facilities,” Mr. Ncube said.

He added: “We are also working hard to educate the communities on the need to vaccinate, as well as monitoring health centres to see how these undocumented people are interrogated by authorities when they go there in search of services.” 

The African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a Pretoria-based confederation of 35 migrant communities from Africa and Asia is also running educational programmes on different social media channels, encouraging all its members to get vaccinated.

ADF spokesperson, Sheikh Amir, said they were happy that the vaccination programme was now being extended to stateless and undocumented people.

“We are happy government has also included those without travel documents but who have their country’s documents to the programme. So far, we have not heard of anyone who has tried to get the jab and got turned away. It seems all is going on well,” said Mr. Amir.

What the UN is doing about statelessness

  • UNHCR is mandated by the UN General Assembly to identify and protect stateless people and to prevent and reduce statelessness. On 4 November 2014, UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024.
  • UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi has been on the forefront in fighting for the rights of stateless people. He has appealed for “decisive action” from governments to eliminate the problem, noting that it is the right thing to do, “humanly, ethically and politically”.

Every person on this planet has the right to nationality and the right to say I belong,” says Mr. Grandi.

  • On 4 November 2014, UNHCR launched the #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness by 2024. 
  • Other UN agencies are collaborating to address the problem. These include the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that is working on improving birth registration and civil registries, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) that is helping governments design and implement national censuses, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that supports monitoring of the human rights of stateless people.
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