The lost children of Côte d’Ivoire
Growing up without a nationality
Denied a nationality and deprived of their basic human rights, stateless people in Côte d’Ivoire cannot go to high school, get a formal job, open a bank account, own land, travel freely or vote. Far from being a problem that affects a small minority, the Ivoirian Government estimates there are close to 700,000 people living in Côte d’Ivoire who are currently stateless or at risk of statelessness.
There are two main reasons for this situation. During colonial times many people were brought into the country from what is now neighboring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea to work on plantations and did not receive nationality when the country gained independence. Their descendants still have no nationality despite having been in the country for generations. The other is because there is no provision in national law to give nationality to abandoned children also known as foundlings. UNHCR estimates that there 300,000 stateless people living in Côte d’Ivoire because of this.
This is the story of three children who have grown up in Côte d’Ivoire without a nationality because one of both of their parents abandoned them.
All pictures: UNHCR / Arnaud Froger
“I want to study for a long time and become Minister. After that I will help my mother and all the other people who do not have a nationality” explains Deborah. The little girl wants to believe that she will one day have a birth certificate, official recognition and a nationality.
Deborah (left) sits with her mother Lucille and her two half-sisters. Lucille was abandoned at birth and is stateless. Deborah’s father left when she was a young girl and because her birth was never registered she was not able to gain his citizenship, so is also stateless. ‘I want her to have a better life than I did. I cannot study, I cannot work, I cannot travel, says Lucille.’
Because she does not have any identity papers Lucille is systematically stopped on the road by police who demand that she give them money in exchange for freedom of movement. Deborah was entrusted to a family who lives nearby. “She is better there. Without papers, I cannot study, I cannot work. I do not have money and cannot give her anything. I want her to have a better life than I did”, says Lucille.
Annick has no idea where her parents are; she lost all contact with them when she was very young. Because of this she has no documents that confirm where she is from and where she was born. She does not have a nationality and is, as a result, stateless.
Annick’s grandparents raised her but when they died, Annick was taken in by the village chief. Following his death, his step-son Séverin took her into his family and has been raising her ever since. According to him, she was born about 5km from the border with Ghana, and is around 13 years old.
Annick loves going to school but without nationality papers, she will soon have no choice but to leave. She will not be able to go to middle school, continue her studies in high school or receive an official diploma. She also cannot travel freely within the county. ‘If one day, I can no longer go to school, I would be very unhappy’, she says.
Annick hopes to one day live like everyone else, with the same rights and opportunities. ‘My dream is to travel’, she says. ‘I would like to explore the capital Abidjan, and discover other countries. I want to become Minister of Finance. I would like to be a powerful woman and help others. That would make me happy.’ Without a nationality, however, these aspirations remain a pipedream.
“I do not know who my parents are. I do not remember who they are”. Issa was abandoned when he was very young. He has no identity papers that show where he is from or who his parents are. Like many abandoned children in Cote d’Ivoire, Issa cannot prove his nationality and is stateless. He is approximately 10 years old. When he was around the age of three, Issa was entrusted to the imam of this mosque in Aboisso, eastern Côte d’Ivoire. “I will be back to get him in three days”, his father told the Imam. But the man never came back. His only possessions were his clothes on his back. He was given the name Issa by the Imam.
Issa is not treated like the other children in the family or even in the neighborhood. While his friends and “siblings” go to school, Issa takes the family’s sheep out to pasture and does chores around the house. ‘Every day I have to do the housework and take care of the animals. I want to go back to school but I cannot without papers’, he says.” The social worker who checks in on him worries that he does more than his fair share of domestic duties: “he does not have a parent to protect him, to say ‘no’ to the other people in the community who ask him to run errands for them”.
“My dream is to become a football player. But first I need to go to school” says Issa. But today, he can only attend Koranic classes because without a nationality, his Guardian believes that it would be difficult to register him in public school. “All the other children have birth certificates or other nationality documents we do not know how we would even get him any kind of document given that he has neither a father nor a mother”, he says.