The Economic Community of West African States is holding its first ministerial conference on statelessness this week in Abidjan. The United Nations said at least 750,000 people in West Africa are denied a nationality. Where Sierra Leonean refugees say both Guinea and Sierra Leone refuse to recognize them as citizens.
Guinea has strict rules on who can get a Guinean passport or national identity card. A person must be able to speak a local language and name their parents’ hometown.
Deputy mayor of the capital, Conakry, Ahamed Sekou Traore, said the law aims to prohibit fraudulent claims and police have arrested several people recently.
He said the authorities put in place a surveillance commission to interview people and determine if they qualify as Guinean. He said an applicant must speak a local language and even be able to say a proverb in it. He said they have many Africans passing through who see Guinea as hospitable and try to get documents here so they can use them to engage in illegal activities.
But the law also affects people with no criminal intent, like Guineans who have lived or grew up abroad and then return home. Refugees who fled the civil war in Sierra Leone and who have lived in Guinea for over a decade can’t get papers either.
Not an easy return home
Barber Fode Mansare, 40, was born in Guinea but his parents moved to Sierra Leone when he was two. Both his parents died in the war.
He said he doesn’t know what to do - he tried to get a Guinean national identity card and passport but was refused because he doesn't speak a local language. Mansare said he gets by as a barber but hasn’t been able to find a better job because of the language issue.
He said he considers Guinea his country but is denied basic rights.
Mansare added that if he returns to Sierra Leone, there they will call him Guinean. Sierra Leone has also denied him citizenship documents, he said, so he must just remain in Guinea "until I die".
Some refugees claim descrimination
Sierra Leonean Mbalu Conte had six children with her Guinean husband. They fled to Guinea after her husband was killed in the war. She said they encounter discrimination.
She said her husband’s family rejected them because the children don’t speak their language. She said she was confused but could not go back to Sierra Leone where children are on the streets. She said she couldn’t send her children to school in Guinea and if they get sick, hospital doctors hardly look at them.
Mbalu said her children deserve the basic civil rights. She said her family opposed her marrying a Guinean so she cannot go back to Sierra Leone.
She said it’s the “same suffering” in both countries and since they have started a life in Guinea they have to stay here.
Yusufu Kamara, 13, moved from Sierra Leone to Conakry with his Guinean father. He said people still treat him like a foreigner.
He said when his father died, the landlord evicted him and since then he has been on the streets. He said he didn’t go to school so he is just able to pick up odd jobs. He said people shout at him and tell him he is not Guinean. He said police have arrested several of his friends and they are still detained because they only speak Krio. He asks the Guinean government to take pity on them.
The United Nations say most stateless people are born that way. The effects last a lifetime. Without birth certificates or national identity papers, they cannot enroll in school, get married, open a bank account or own land. Their job prospects are limited.
The U.N. Refugee Agency is calling for a regional response to statelessness in West Africa.