Many readers might be puzzled about how statelessness can happen. What is it that causes individuals and groups to have no identification, no documentation, no proof that they so much as exist?

Some people are born stateless, while others become stateless, and the short answer is that there are many ways that someone can end up with no nationality. The recently resolved plight of an estimated 7 000 Pemba people living in Kenya gives one illustration of how it can come about.

As the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, explains, its widely believed that the original members of today’s 7 000 Pemba community came to Kenya from Zanzibar around the 1930s, some time before Kenyan independence in 1963. ‘They settled on a 10-mile coastal strip where they took up fishing as their main economic activity. When Kenya became a republic in 1964, the Pembas were neither registered as an indigenous tribe nor recognised as Kenyan citizens.’

No access to hospitals

Ever since, the Pemba have been clear examples of the problem of statelessness. They have been living in a country without officially being part of it. They haven’t had Kenyan nationality – or the nationality of any other country. Without any legal identity they have been living as ‘non people’, cut off from healthcare, education and even formal employment. What this meant for them is hard to imagine – for example, not being eligible for healthcare has meant that pregnant women aren’t able to access state hospitals to deliver their babies.

But after many years of community organising and lobbying government, this has now changed. Some months ago, Kenya’s government announced that the Pemba people would be recognised as one of Kenya’s ethnic communities. What’s more, according to the UNHCR, the Pemba are ‘among 16 groups of Swahili-speaking coastal people’ that have since been recognised as one of Kenya’s ethnic communities.

And finally, at a ceremony in July, the hard work paid off as Kenya’s president, William Ruto authorised the issuing of ID cards, birth certificates and passports, marking the start of a new life for the 7 000-strong Pemba community.

Telling the stories

A couple of videos show the community effort involved and the great joy that the change in status has brought. They are well worth watching to understand from someone’s first-hand story, just what it means to be a stateless individual or part of an entire community that is stateless.

France24 tells the story with a focus on Hussein Omari Hassan, a man who fishes for a living, and the video explains the registration process by community members that was an essential element in the process leading to the change in status of the Pemba.

From the UNHCR, issued as part of the buildup to November 4’s international efforts aimed at raising awareness of the statelessness problem, comes another story and video, the tale of paralegal Barke Hamsi. She grew up being told that she was a Pemba, not a Kenyan, and came to wonder why this was so, given that Kenya was the only home she, and the rest of her community, had ever known.

New Tanzanian citizens welcomed

The year has also seen further steps to deal with statelessness in Tanzania, and the government there has granted citizenship to more than 3 300 ‘immobile migrants’, after they have been living in that country for more than 50 years.

A report in the Tanzanian publication, The Citizen, records that citizenship certificates were issued by Zanzibar’s president, Hussein Mwinyi, in a ceremony during September.

Mwinyi is reported as having assured the new citizens of Tanzania that they had all the rights and privileges of other citizens, and urging them to make the most of the opportunities and rights that came with that citizenship, to better their own families and the development of their new homeland.

Abandoned as a baby

He also told government and private institutions in Tanzania that they should give the new citizens all the support that they would need.

The report also notes that normally, foreigners must pay a Sh2million fee each when they are granted citizenship, but that these fees were waived in this case.

One of the group, Yusuph Bizimana, whose family came from Rwanda, explained that he had come to be stateless when he was abandoned in Tanzania by his mother during 1947. From then on, he had lived in Tanzania, effectively helping to build the country, even though he didn’t have formal citizenship papers.

Conventions on statelessness

Another African state making strides in ending statelessness is the Republic of Congo, not just because of its efforts delivering birth certificates to people at risk of statelessness, but also because last month it acceded to both the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Commenting on this development, Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said the Republic of the Congo had set an example for other countries in Africa. ‘The plight of millions of statelessness people can be resolved through political will and legislative changes.’