(Beirut, May 12, 2019) – Qatar’s decision to arbitrarily strip families from the Ghufran clan of their citizenship has left some members still stateless 20 years later and deprived of key human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
Stateless members of the Ghufran clan are deprived of their rights to decent work, access to health care, education, marriage and starting a family, owning property, and freedom of movement. Without valid identity documents, they face restrictions opening bank accounts and acquiring drivers’ licenses and are at risk of arbitrary detention. Those living in Qatar are also denied a range of government benefits afforded to Qatari citizens, including state jobs, food and energy subsidies, and free health care.
“Many stateless members of the Ghufran clan are still denied redress today,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Qatari government should immediately end the suffering of those left stateless and give them and those who have since acquired other nationalities a clear path toward regaining their Qatari citizenship.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine members of three stateless families of the Ghufran clan living in Qatar and one person from a fourth family who lives in Saudi Arabia. Altogether, there are 28 stateless individuals in the four families. Four others interviewed, two of whom live in Qatar, said they became Saudi citizens 8 to 10 years after Qatar stripped them of their citizenship.
A 56-year-old man whose citizenship along with that of his five children was stripped in 2004 described the impact: “I have no property in my name, no house, no income, no health card, I can’t even open a bank account, it’s like I don’t even exist. When I get sick [instead of going to a doctor or hospital] I take Panadol [a non-prescription painkiller] and hope for the best.”
The Ghufran clan is a branch of the semi-nomadic al-Murrahs, who span the Gulf region and are among the largest tribes in Qatar. While Qatar has restored citizenship to many of the thousands of Ghufran clan members whose citizenships they arbitrarily stripped starting in 1996, some families still have no clear path to restore their citizenship.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Qatari Ministry of Interior on April 29, 2019 to raise concerns about the Ghufran clans’ situation. The letter did not receive a response at the time of this writing.
The Qatari government has asserted that those stripped of citizenship held a second nationality, for Saudi Arabia, presumably because a large faction of the al-Murrah had long ago also settled in Saudi Arabia and gained Saudi citizenship. Dual citizenship is prohibited under Qatar’s nationality law, as in other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
But several clan representatives told Human Rights Watch that they believe the action was a form of collective punishment related to the participation of some members in a failed 1996 coup against then-Emir Hamad Al Thani, who had deposed his father, Khalifa Al Thani, the year before. In a 2006 US State Department report, “diplomats pointed out that many other dual nationals in Qatar have not been affected.”
All of those interviewed denied having a second nationality when their Qatari citizenship was revoked. Some said that they were subsequently unable to obtain a second nationality. Others said that they had been able to obtain a second nationality, but that their origins were Qatari.
None of the interviewees had received any official or written communication stating the reason behind the revocation of their citizenship or offered the chance to appeal. All, including those who returned to Qatar following the Gulf crisis in June 2017, said they either fled, were deported, or were denied entry back into Qatar after their citizenship was revoked. They said they settled for several years in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Kuwait as stateless persons. All showed documentary evidence that they were Qatari nationals.
While the Qatari government maintains that those whose citizenship has not been restored are Saudi nationals, none of the three stateless families interviewed who live in Qatar say the government allowed them to challenge that designation. They said they had reached out to the Interior Ministry, the National Human Rights Committee, and the Emir’s office multiple times to try to restore their citizenship.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will conduct its third review of Qatar's human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) procedure on May 15 in Geneva. Over the past two years, Ghufran activists have called on the UNHRC to help restore their clan’s lost rights. A joint submission to the UPR in October 2018 by the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, and the Rights Realization Center also addressed the issue.
“The Qatari government should create a timely and transparent system to review the citizenship claims of members of Ghufran clan,” Fakih said. “Qatar should follow the positive recent steps it’s taken in ratifying core human rights treaties and make sure the rights enshrined there are being respected.”
Lives on Hold
“Everything in this world is linked to citizenship,” said “Rami,” 33, who says he was just 10 when Qatari authorities revoked his citizenship along with that of his then nine-member family. “But for us everything is linked to the charity of others.” Like most of those interviewed he requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Pseudonyms are used for all interviewees to protect their privacy and security.
Everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed said they relied on handouts from people sympathetic to their situation to cover their basic needs. Lacking valid identity documents and forced to live in other Gulf states, they were unable to maintain a steady income and struggled to lead dignified lives. Three families who remain stateless said that each of the homes they have lived in since becoming stateless were donated by charities or members of their extended family. None of the children whose citizenship was revoked before age 18 have been able to pursue higher education, secure gainful employment, or marry and start a family. “We live in suffering because we are stateless,” Rami said. “If we remain this way, we will have no future.”
The only identification many of those interviewed said they have are expired Qatari passports, identification cards, and health cards; and in some cases, just copies. For the younger generation, even those documents rarely serve them well as the photographs that were taken when they were young children or teenagers. Those born after their families were stripped of citizenship only have birth certificates from various Gulf states, many stating the parents’ nationalities as Qataris. One toddler’s Qatari birth certificate states that her parents are “non-Qataris,” with no other nationality. Several stateless people who live in Qatar hold various recent government-issued documents stating their nationality as Qataris, indicating confusion even within government circles regarding their legal status.
Qatari women are still not entitled to pass nationality to their children or spouses. In 2018, Qatar passed a new permanent residency law that allows children and spouses of Qatari women married to non-Qataris to acquire permanent residence status. However, in two cases documented in which a father was stripped of his citizenship, but the mother retained hers, the children were not allowed to benefit from the law.
“When we heard about the law, we were hopeful that things might improve,” said Rami’s Qatari mother, “Najma.” “But they [Ministry of Interior officials] wouldn’t let me apply for [permanent] residency for my children, because they said they were already Qataris.” Rami said that when pressed about it, officials told them to contact the ministry about their revoked citizenship instead.
The situation is similar for those able to obtain a second nationality. Two people who came back to Qatar to live after acquiring Saudi nationality said that Interior Ministry officials barred them from applying for legal residency in Qatar as nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
“At one point, several years into being in Qatar, failing to get our rights back, I tried to get residency permits issued for us as Saudi nationals in Qatar,” said “Abdulrahman,” 34, who returned to Qatar with his wife and two children the year he acquired Saudi nationality. “They [Interior Ministry] refused our applications, saying you are Qatari anyway, how should we give you residency permits?”
“Anwar,” 40, whose Saudi passport has expired in Qatar, refuses to renew it for fear of losing the chance to one day regain his Qatari citizenship:
Getting the Saudi citizenship was simply a matter of attempting to pursue a dignified life. No more, no less. I didn’t want to leave Qatar. I want to remain in this country, my country…My life in Qatar now is such a struggle. I wish to work. I wish to be married. But I don’t have any identification documents that are valid today. And everything requires connections.
Two Ghufran activists living outside Qatar and holding a second nationality said they had not attempted to return since their Qatari passports expired because they feared being arrested for their activism. “For 22 years, I have been robbed of visiting my mother, brothers, and relatives in my homeland,” one said.
Some people remain stateless with no apparent reason for the distinction between them and those whose citizenship has been restored. All of the stateless people interviewed said they had immediate family members whose citizenship was restored. In its 2010 annual report, the National Human Rights Committee said that those who have regained their citizenship have had difficulties getting housing and employment benefits.
Ghufran activists said that given the lack of transparency associated with Qatar’s policy of restoring citizenship, a sense of fear and suspicion permeates the community. “Those who have had their citizenship restored are just as afraid of speaking out as we are,” one woman said. “They fear losing it again.”
Both free government schools and private and international schools in Qatar require valid identification documents to enroll. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, where many of those interviewed lived for a portion of their lives stateless, both private and public schools also require valid identification. Families interviewed said they had to rely on connections and sympathetic people, including school administrators aware of their predicament, to enroll their children.
None whose citizenships were revoked before they reached 18 have been able to pursue higher education even if their families could pay the higher international fees.
“I tried to enroll in Qatar University, and I was accepted,” said “Hamzeh,” 20, who said that his inability to pursue higher education has been the biggest blow to his morale since his citizenship was revoked. “But because all my identification papers are expired, I was refused at the last stage.”
Rami also tried to apply to Qatar University, which offers scholarships for non-citizen children of Qatari mothers. He said that when he said he did not have any valid identity documents, the university administration asked him to get Interior Ministry approval: “We have reached out to the Ministry of Interior several times, in relation to higher education, and employment, and even legal residency [as sons and daughters of a Qatari woman], but we are yet to receive approval.”
Under Qatari law, only those with legal resident or citizen status can legally hold jobs. “None of us have jobs,” said “Najeeb,” Rami’s 30-year-old brother. “I would find jobs, I would get accepted but once they found out I didn’t have valid documentation, the companies would decide not to hire me.”
“Sanaa,” 26, and her sister “Dana,” 22, are the main income providers for their 11-member family. With the help of extended family members who retained Qatari citizenship, they established an online import business. “I didn’t graduate, I can’t work in anything other than trade under the table,” said Dana, “and even with that I’m forced to depend on my aunts and uncles. All the process and applications requiring government approval are done under their names.”
Qatar provides free or heavily subsidized health care to its citizens and legal residents, but they must apply for health cards to use the services.
Each of the 10 stateless people interviewed said they struggled to access health care because they lacked valid identity documents. Members from all three stateless families interviewed who live in Qatar said they had to use relatives’ or friends’ health cards to get critical treatment at government hospitals or to pay higher fees in private hospitals and clinics.
“Bushra,” 49, said even when it came to primary health care, hospitals always demanded valid identification cards. “Six months into her birth we still couldn’t get her vaccinated or get her any other health services,” she said of her youngest daughter. “I often try to wear the niqab, take my cousin’s health card and try and get her treated that way.” At age 2, her daughter has still not received essential vaccines.
Each of the individuals Human Rights Watch spoke to also reported struggling to access healthcare while living as stateless persons in other Gulf states.
Freedom of Movement; Freedom from Arbitrary Detention
A major complaint among those interviewed is the restriction of their right to travel. “Some of us have never seen the inside of a plane before,” said Rami, who said that even getting around within Qatar is a struggle because he and his brothers could not acquire drivers’ licenses without valid identification.
“When we are stopped by traffic police and they find out we don’t have drivers’ licenses or IDs, they send us to the nearest police station and we can only be bailed out,” said “Hareth,” Rami’s 29-year-old brother.
When they lived in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, they had similar problems: “When in Saudi Arabia our biggest struggle, the boys at least, was whenever they passed through any police checkpoints, they would be questioned about not having identification papers, and they’d be arrested and detained at times,” Rami’s father said. “One time, one of my sons spent three days in jail because he couldn’t provide identification.”
In addition to violating individuals’ freedom of movement, including the right to leave any country, unreliable and restricted access to travel documents can lead to the violation of individuals’ right to health, including the right to seek medical treatment, and their right to religious freedom, including to make religious pilgrimages.
Qatari authorities stripped “Anan,” 58, and her siblings of their citizenship in 2004. She had already been living in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province with her husband and children, whose citizenship she said had been revoked in 1996. While her husband and children managed to acquire Saudi citizenship in 2005, her application remains pending:
I can’t travel outside Saudi, I can’t even travel inside Saudi, to Mecca. The most difficult thing for me is that I can’t visit my family in Qatar. I miss visiting home, I miss al-Wakrah, al-Rayyan, the corniche, the sea. I missed my nephew’s wedding and many other family events. There are some loved ones that I haven’t seen since the day I was stripped of citizenship.
Many Ghufran clan members who said they ended up in exile as a result of the arbitrary deprivation of their citizenship have effectively been deprived of their property, including their homes, in Qatar.
“Abdulaziz,” 34, said his family were stripped of their citizenship in 1996 and forced to leave Qatar in 2002: “In 2005 or 2006, after we had left Qatar, my dad was forced to sell the house or face the prospect that the government would confiscate it. Ministry of Interior officials called my uncles in Qatar and told them this.” Abdulaziz now lives in Saudi Arabia.
Each of the three families interviewed who live in Qatar live in homes donated to them by charities or members of their extended families who retain their Qatari citizenship. They reported facing restrictions in purchasing and owning property, opening bank accounts, and even purchasing sim cards and phone and internet lines.
Soon after they returned to Qatar, Rami’s mother, whose citizenship was restored a few years earlier, said she went back to their old family home to check on it only to find out that the authorities had handed it over to another family. Rami’s family now lives in a house donated to them by their uncles on their mother’s side: “We don’t want to be dependent on others. We want to be able to live in our home and in our homeland with dignity.”
Right to Marry and Found a Family
Stateless members of the Ghufran clan face difficulties getting married both for social and administrative reasons. Registering a marriage requires a copy of a valid passport or residency permit, and a birth certificate.
“I have one daughter I tried to marry to a Kuwaiti man, but the marriage was refused as she didn’t have valid identification,” said “Omar.”
Rami’s mother said that even if they did manage to bypass the bureaucratic requirements, without citizenship, her children would always be at a disadvantage: “We as a family of 12 are living without a steady income. Who would be willing to marry into a family that doesn’t even have the ability to make money?”
Of those whose cases were reviewed, 16 people were between ages 18 and 35. None were married.
Both Qatar’s 1961 (now repealed) and 2005 nationality laws allow for revocation of citizenship by Emiri decree with no right of appeal. Both laws set out five grounds on which a citizen’s nationality can be withdrawn, including acquiring another nationality.
The 2005 law, which the Emir signed in October, a year after Qatari authorities reportedly began to withdraw the majority of Ghufran members’ citizenship, allows for restoration of citizenship by Emiri decree in circumstances in which a person acquired a second nationality “if the public interest so requires.” Article 7 also states that nationality may be reinstated to someone who “proves to be of Qatari origin in accordance with this law provided that: (1) The person has resided in Qatar for at least three consecutive years; (2) The person has a lawful means of income sufficient to meet his needs and (3) The person has a reputation for honesty and is of good reputation.”
These constitute unfair conditions following an arbitrary decision to revoke their citizenship. Qatar’s 2005 law also discriminates against naturalized citizens, stating they “shall not be equated with Qatari nationals in terms of the right to work in public positions or work in general until five years after the date of naturalization. Naturalized Qataris shall not be entitled to participate in elections or nominations or be appointed in any legislative body.” Article 15 says that people whose Qatari nationality has been reinstated “shall not be entitled to nomination or appointment in any legislative body until at least 10 years have elapsed from the date of the decision.”
Qatar is not party to either the 1954 or the 1961 UN Statelessness Conventions. Its laws on nationality say nothing about revoking citizenship when that would leave the person stateless. Qatar should ratify both conventions.
International Human Rights Law
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of it.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Qatar ratified in April 1995, recognizes the right of the child to be registered immediately after birth and to acquire a nationality, “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless” (article 7), and if the child has been “illegally deprived” of their nationality, to re-establish it “speedily” (article 8). The Convention prohibits discrimination (article 2), including in education, and obliges states to make higher education available to all on the basis of their capacity (article 28).
The rights to work, health, and education, are also enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Qatar ratified in May 2018. Aspects of these rights are also protected under the CRC, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Many of these rights and the right to property are protected in the revised Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Qatar ratified in 2013.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Qatar ratified in May 2018, also protects the right to marry and found a family, and the right to be free from arbitrary detention.
Article 12 of the ICCPR states that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country,” and that “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” In 1999, the Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, stated that “The scope of ‘his own country’ is broader than the concept ‘country of his nationality,’” and that it would apply to people who have been stripped of their nationality in violation of international law.
The Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 27 adds that these provisions apply not only to citizens, but also to those with strong ties to a particular country. It also specifies that “the right to leave a country must include the right to obtain the necessary travel documents.”
It is a basic international standard that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, according to clear laws setting out the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt.
In 1996, Ghufran activists and individuals said Qatari authorities started to strip entire families belonging to Ghufran clan of their citizenship without legal proceedings, or the chance to appeal. Media reports, US State Department reports, and the National Human Rights Committee say that in 2004, the government stripped 5,000 to 6,000 people of their Qatari citizenship.
One estimate put the upper figure at 10,000. Some of them immediately lost their jobs and others, over time, could no longer hold jobs or own property, and they and their families could not get government benefits. Some were detained and deported and their passports were revoked. Others who had been out of the country were refused entry. Many sought refuge in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
In early 2006, the government changed course and over the next two years, restored citizenship to many of those whose citizenship had been stripped. The head of the National Human Rights Committee said on August 5, 2008 that citizenship had been restored to about 5,700 people, which he said was 95 percent of those whose citizenships had been revoked. Ghufran activists dispute that claim, saying that the committee only counted those whose citizenships had been revoked in 2004, ignoring those revoked earlier.
In its annual reports between 2008 and 2014, the committee reported receiving 233 complaints regarding withdrawal and restoration of citizenship. It also reported receiving similar complaints between 2015 and 2017 but did not specify how many. None of the reports said how many complaints had been resolved.
In June 2017, after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain ordered all their nationals to leave Qatar and ordered the eviction of all Qatari nationals from their territory, the al-Ghufran clan’s plight resurfaced, as a small number of families and individuals who had settled in Saudi Arabia found themselves forced to leave. At the time, Human Rights Watch documented the case of one such person stuck at the border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatari authorities finally let him enter some days later.