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Citizenship and nomads

We touched on people living a nomadic lifestyle when discussing the citizenship status of the Roma population in Europe, part of which lives a non-sedentary life. Looking at this phenomenon more broadly and in different regions of the world, Heather Alexander shows the difficulties experienced by nomadic peoples because of a global nation-state system that is based on settlement. Nomadism was seen as undesirable by both colonial and post-colonial governments because this lifestyle was considered antithetical to state sovereignty, challenged the idea of the unified nation, and weakened the sense of fixed state borders.

Since the primary distinguishing feature of nomads is their nomadic lifestyle, they are difficult to define and ‘do not fit comfortably under either the definition of indigenous, nor the definition of minority, obscuring their understanding under human rights laws designed to protect minorities and indigenous peoples’. In the absence of a formally recognised definition, Alexander defines nomads as ‘people pursuing a mobile lifestyle following scarce or changeable resources’. They may also experience the problems that scholars have observed in relation to indigenous peoples, namely the lack of adequate birth registration and the non-recognition of indigenous identity papers.

While nomadism has sharply declined all over the world due to modernization, Alexander discusses what she thinks is a neglected factor in the decline of nomadism: ‘the introduction of modern nationality law into post-colonial states and the use of statelessness and deportation to exclude nomads from states’. While human rights instruments exist such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there are no international standards when it comes to their citizenship status. Nomads, not being indigenous nor immigrant, have consistently fallen between the cracks. The phenomenon being particularly prevalent in Africa, where nomads number in the millions, Africa expert Bronwnen Manby has therefore dedicated a specific recommendation to nomadic peoples in her PhD thesis on citizenship in Africa:

· Review laws to ensure that they are adapted to the contemporary African realities, including laws and regulations that provide systems for access to nationality for nomadic and border populations.

· In particular, adopt definitions of habitual residence and other connections to the state that allow for nomadic lifestyles and those whose communities are divided by an international border, and, if dual nationality is not permitted, create the right to opt (without time limits) for one or other nationality of persons who are habitually resident in or have strong connections to more than one country.

Although we have already seen that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights considers nationality a human right, Alexander argues that the human rights system is still very much bound up with the nation-state system. As a result, ‘because nomads are excluded from the nation-state system, they are frequently denied a nationality, which in turn prevents them from accessing their human rights’.

A well-known stateless nomadic population is the Bidoon jinsiya (literally ‘those without nationality). Resident in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion reports that they number around 70,000 in Saudi Arabia alone and are composed of descendants of nomadic tribes who, for different reasons, failed to apply for Saudi nationality when the state was being formed. Today, they are considered illegal residents and are not eligible for Saudi nationality. Their plight also made the headlines in recent years when a number of Gulf States entered into negotiation with the government of Comoros to provide Comorian passports to the Bidoon in exchange for economic incentives.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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