The International Observatory on Statelessness

Middle East/North Africa

Most countries in the Middle East do not afford women equal nationality rights. Specific conditions vary, but the prevailing rule is that a woman married to a non-citizen cannot pass her nationality to her children, putting children at risk of statelessness and severely complicating the lives of couples of mixed origin. Three major populations vulnerable to statelessness are dispersed throughout the region: Palestinians, Kurds, and Bidun (also Bidoon or Bidoun).

Palestinians’ legal status and living conditions vary throughout the Middle East. Palestinian refugees are uniquely defined by and receive assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). They are defined as persons who resided in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 and “who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” Since UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee also covers descendants (through the male line) of such persons, the number has risen to 4.6 million. Article 1(2) (i) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons provides that individuals receiving protection or assistance from UN agencies other than UNHCR are technically not covered by the 1954 statelessness convention. Thus, because large numbers of Palestinian refugees receive assistance from UNRWA, the 1954 convention does not apply. Nonetheless, millions of these refugees have no citizenship, although some have acquired nationality in other countries.

Kurds number between 25 and 30 million and more than half of the Kurdish population resides in Turkey. Others are in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Some live in Western Europe and the U.S. An estimated 300,000 denationalized Kurds in Syria and tens of thousands of Kurds in Lebanon lack citizenship. Though some stateless Kurds remain in Iran, large numbers have repatriated to Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein thanks to favorable nationality provisions in the new Iraqi constitution.

The Bidun (or “bidun junsiya,” meaning “without citizenship”) are a minority residing throughout the Middle East, in Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Efforts to register and naturalize stateless persons in the United Arab Emirates in 2006 and 2008 are encouraging.