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Egypt's stateless keep receiving empty promises of citizenship

Egypt has recently granted citizenship to three brothers from the Sinai Peninsula, renewing calls by other stateless individuals, mainly tribesmen, to receive the citizenship as they are deprived of their most basic rights.
Umm Yasser, an Egyptian Bedouin woman guide from the Hamada tribe, prepares tea for a group of hikers in Wadi el-Sahu in South Sinai governorate on March 29, 2019, during the first "Sinai Trail" led by Bedouin women guides. - In Wadi Sahu, a village in the southern part of Egypt's eastern Sinai peninsula, made up of humble shacks with corrugated iron and recycled scraps, Bedouins are banking on the return of tourism after the tumultuous years since Egypt's 2011 uprising. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

The Egyptian Ministry of Interior has recently granted citizenship to three stateless individuals who were born in the south Sinai Peninsula.

In a decision issued Feb. 11, the Ministry of Interior said it was “granting Egyptian citizenship to three brothers who had no nationality — namely Salem Halil Nasr Salem, born in south Sinai on Sept. 25, 1977; Radhia Halil Nasr Salem, born in south Sinai on Sept. 25, 1975; and Abdallah Halil Nasr Salem born on Nov. 5, 2001, in accordance with the fifth paragraph of Article 4 of Law No. 26 of 1975 concerning the Egyptian nationality.”

Article 4 stipulates that the Egyptian nationality may be granted by decree of the minister of interior “to whoever is born in Egypt of a father of Egyptian origin, if he applies for the Egyptian nationality after having made his ordinary residence in Egypt, and is of full age at the time he applies for the nationality.”

The article further states that nationality is granted “to whoever belongs to an Egyptian origin whenever he applies for Egyptian nationality after five years of ordinary residence in Egypt, provided he has already attained full age at the time he submits the application.”

According to the same article, nationality may be granted “to any foreigner born in Egypt of a foreign father who was also born in it, if such a foreigner belongs to the majority of inhabitants in a country whose language is Arabic, or religion is Islam, if he applies for the Egyptian nationality within one year from the date he attains full age.”

As per the article, nationality is also granted “to each foreigner who has made his normal residence in Egypt for 10 consecutive years at least before he submits an application for the Egyptian nationality, if he is of age.”

The stateless people in Egypt live in border and mountainous areas that are mainly marginalized or in conflict areas. They do not hold official papers or birth certificates as they are not recognized by the law nor by the government. Without papers and personal documents, stateless persons are deprived of their right to education, health care and even burial as state cemeteries do not receive bodies without official papers. They may not marry or inherit, face all kinds of obstructions and may also be subject to arbitrary arrest.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 10 million people in the world today are stateless.

According to the UNHCR, there are more than 30 countries where stateless individuals need official papers to be provided with health care, and in more than 20 countries children without official papers cannot legally receive vaccinations. These children are often forced to go to expensive private hospitals, as state hospitals do not receive people without official papers. According to a UNHCR investigation, there are children who have never been to a hospital for a checkup.

The UNHCR had announced in 2014 a plan to end statelessness by 2024.

In Egypt, however, there are no official statistics by local authorities or the UNHCR on the number of stateless individuals, and there are no laws that define how they deal with official matters. In addition, there are no official numbers of these stateless individuals having tried to apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, the government continues to delay a solution to this problem.

In Halayeb and Shalateen, a border area claimed by both Egypt and Sudan, many tribesmen are stateless. Since Egypt annexed the territory in 1902, several people have returned to Sudan. But those who remained have yet to receive the Egyptian citizenship, mainly from al-Atman and Rashaida tribes. The Egyptian authorities have refused to grant them any official papers proving their right to Egyptian citizenship.

Salem al-Rasheed, 50, who was born in Halayeb and Shalateen and belongs to the Rashaida tribe, never left the area in all his life for fear of arrest since he does not have any identification papers.

“Even if I die, I will not be entitled to a death certificate, just like I was not entitled to a birth certificate when I was born. In this world, it is as though I do not exist, and I will die like any cat or dog that was run over by a car on a public road,” Rasheed told Al-Monitor.

He added, “We are paying the price for disputes between Egypt and Sudan over the territory as the government stands idle. Over the past 10 years, we have been receiving promises whereby applications for citizenship would be accepted. We were repeatedly told that ‘the crisis is about to be solved. You will practice politics, and you will have a member of parliament.’ But nothing has materialized.”

Tribesmen in Sinai also suffer this ordeal. The Azazma tribe members still do not have Egyptian citizenship years after they remained in Sinai, after Israel ended its occupation of the peninsula in 1982. 

Tribe member Amin Atallah told Al-Monitor, “Only fear [of arrest] is preventing us from taking new steps [to demand citizenship]. We prefer a peaceful solution, but the Egyptian government keeps ignoring us.”

Atallah said, “No one cared to come and see the tin houses we lived in until 1998 before the government allowed us to build brick homes. We do not dream of much, only of some dignity that allows our children to learn in public schools and be treated in a nearby [state] hospital or medical center.”

“No one understood on what grounds Egypt decided to grant [citizenship] to a select few," he said, in reference to the three brothers who recently received their citizenship, in addition to dozens of others over the past years.

“It may be that the government is granting citizenship [as a reward] for those who are cooperating with the Egyptian security services [in their fight against Islamist groups in Sinai]. Some refused to cooperate, which may be the reason why the Egyptian government did not grant them citizenship. Other tribes living in north Sinai received identity cards and their names were included in official records. But the Azazma tribe refused [to collaborate with the security forces], so they were forced to live a life marred by difficulties,” Atallah concluded.

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