The third in a series of posts that portray the complex journeys of individual asylum seekers who come to Asylos

by Emanuela Colaci

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights affirms that “everyone has the right to a nationality”. Despite this, UNHCR predicts that approximately 10 million people around the world are stateless. To be stateless means not to exist on paper, not to have a nationality and not to be a legal citizen of any country. This is a problem faced by more than a half of the 8 million Palestinian population worldwide, who is considered de jure to be stateless. The definition of what is a Palestinian nationality and how it is legally defined is complex even for the 2.1 million Palestinians who reside in and never left the West Bank or Gaza (the Occupied Palestinian Territories). In fact, their nationality status is still considered ambiguous in the eye of international law. Palestinians who are considered stateless include those who hold the Refugee Travel Document (RTD) in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and other Arab countries, Palestinians who hold temporary Jordanian passports or who hold the Palestinian passport issued by the Palestinian authority pending the formation of a fully recognised Palestinian state.

This leads us to introduce the story of J, a Palestinian born in Syria and raised in Saudi Arabia but with all her papers issued by the Palestinian authority. J arrived in Belgium following the positive outcome of the family reunification procedure with her husband. As a result of the subsidiary protection offered through the family reunification procedure by which she had arrived in Belgium, she was legally residing in the country. J decided to apply for a recognition of statelessness to the “Family tribunal” (Tribunal de la famille) which would offer her protection independent of the family member she rejoined in Belgium. When approached, the tribunal wanted to know why J could not obtain Saudi nationality, and why she was instead asking to be classified as stateless.

J’s legal representative came to Asylos with a request for information on how a person with Palestinian nationality, born in Syria and raised in Saudi Arabia, could obtain Saudi citizenship. The in-depth research conducted by one of our volunteers was able to show the prejudice and barriers that Palestinians face in Saudi Arabia and the impossibility of obtaining citizenship in the Kingdom.

The naturalisation law in Saudi Arabia of 2004 stipulates that qualified foreigners may apply for citizenship providing they are fluent in Arabic, have lived in the country for 10 years or more, have a clean criminal record and can financially support themselves. This provision applies to all foreigners, with one exception: Palestinians.

The Arab League Decree 1547, dating back to 1959, states that Palestinians are not allowed to become citizens in other Arab countries. Sources estimate that up to a quarter of a million Palestinian refugees are living in Saudi Arabia, all of whom are denied the rights of citizens of other countries, all of this in the name of "preserving the Palestinian entity and identity" (Elder of Ziyon, Arab discrimination and abuse against Palestinians since 1948, 16 January 2014).An interview quoted in the report, with a Palestinian man whose father arrived in Saudi Arabia at the age of 7, describes the bleak and difficult situation for Palestinians such as his father in the country even 50 years after arrival:

"'I'm tied' he tells me often’ [referring to his father]. "After decades in the kingdom, he’s still a 'temporary resident,' ineligible for public services and at the mercy of Saudi sponsors. He's tired of the effort and expense required to maintain his six-twelve month permit – the closest thing to permanency a non-Saudi can hope for in this country." (Middle East Eye, A Palestinian refugee in Saudi Arabia: 50 years of lost dreams, 29th Feb 2016)

How the extent of the decree implemented in 1959 has affected J’s and thousands of others lives is exemplified through human stories. It has left many Palestinians residing in the Member States of the Arab League without the full enjoyment of rights and the degree of protection guaranteed by the access to a nationality. By combining a multitude of sources, Asylos’ report was able to show the issue in its true form, and directly impact the decision regarding J’s future. The judge who eventually granted J statelessness explicitly mentioned the importance of the report in understanding why it was not possible for J to naturalise in Saudi Arabia.

As the legal representative confirmed, the further recognition of J’s statelessness is a first step towards her potential naturalisation as a Belgian citizen which, according to the Belgian code on nationality, can be granted discretionary by the Belgian state with shorter residence requirements, amounting to two years of continuous legal residence on the Belgian soil.