Last year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) handed Semira, 19, a passport for the Comoro Islands, one of the poorest nations on earth, and told her she had 11 months to leave. Although she had been stateless all her life, Semira was born and raised in Dubai and had fully embraced its cosmopolitan culture. She has never stepped foot on the tiny, tropical islands that were to become her homeland, nor did she want to, as she has no roots or family there. She doesn’t have much of a choice, though. Since she isn't even a citizen of the UAE, she is pretty much powerless to fight the government, which is paying the cash-strapped Comoros to take stateless people like her off its hands.

Semira became stateless as a result of the UAE’s confounding policies on birthright. As she understands it, her mother came to Dubai from India to work as household help but became pregnant after her employer raped her. He then denied paternity and turned her over to the police when she was near term. In the UAE, it is illegal to have sex out of wedlock, no matter the circumstance.

After giving birth, Semira’s mother served a one-year prison sentence, which ended with her deportation to India. But because citizenship passes through the father in both India (at the time Semira was born) and the UAE, which doesn’t recognize birthright citizenship, Semira’s mother was unable to procure a passport for Semira to bring her to India. She had to leave Semira behind.

If it were not for a prison guard whom Semira’s mother had befriended while in jail, Semira may have ended up at the local orphanage and would have faced a life of poverty. Instead, the guard suggested sending her to a family member of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan, the former president of the UAE. According to the director of one of the orphanages in Ras al-Khaimah, with whom I spoke, some 30 percent of children from the orphanages are raised at the royal palaces and provided education, food, housing, and support. The royals consider it an act of Islamic charity and these children are commonly called “children of the Emir.” At this time, it is unclear whether Semira’s connections shielded her from deportation. She has been unreachable for the last two months, which means she could either be laying low or already in Comoros.

Abdul Khaleq, a stateless rights activist from UAE, said the UAE authorities had pressured him to apply for citizenship of the Comoros, July 17, 2012. In the end, he was deported to Thailand.
Sukree Sukplang / Reuters

In my recently published book, Crossing the Gulf, I document the stories of stateless people like Semira in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes some of the largest migrant-receiving countries in the world. In the UAE, migrant workers make up 80 percent of its population. In neighboring Kuwait, migrants outnumber citizens three to one. But most Gulf States refuse to offer citizenship rights and protection to them, even to those born within their borders. It is estimated that there are over 100,000 stateless individuals in the UAE alone and over 130,000 in neighboring Kuwait.

In the past decade, the Gulf has seen an increase in female migrants from Asia and Africa who take up jobs as domestic workers, nannies, beauticians, and service workers. Under the kefala system, used by many Gulf states to govern guest labor, workers are forbidden to engage in sexual relations for the duration of their contracts. Since pregnancy gives them away, it is often only the women who are punished for breaking Kefala rules and sharia law, which criminalizes zina or sex outside of marriage. Because most women who migrate to the Gulf do so during their most fertile years, and may spend five to ten years in their host countries, this form of contractual sterilization is impossible to abide by. And although some women find themselves in consensual relationships, others are exploited and raped by abusive employers.

As a result, it is sadly common for women such as Semira’s mother to give birth in jail and then have their babies sent to an orphanage after the women are deported. Not helping matters is that both the UAE and a number of sending countries only allow citizenship to transfer through the father. But if no father claims paternity—and this is often the case because coming forward would mean facing punishment for breaking zina—the child becomes stateless. With hundreds of thousands of migrants coming to the Gulf every year, dating back to the 1980s, from places such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—countries that up until recently only permitted paternal citizenship transfer—hundreds and sometimes thousands of children are born to migrant women and left behind.

The children of migrant women are not the only ones who experience the perils of statelessness. There are over 100,000 stateless persons known as bidoon in Kuwait, who do not have citizenship either because of bureaucratic hiccups when Kuwait became a nation state in 1961 (a portion of them failed to register as citizens) or long-standing discrimination against those who were once nationals of neighboring countries but were absorbed by Kuwait after the borders changed. As far as she knows, Rania, 21, who is a bidoon, was born in Kuwait City to a domestic worker from Ethiopia who may have been deported shortly after giving birth. She has spent her entire life living in an orphanage in the city's outskirts, but as a stateless person, she has been unable to find a job or rent an apartment. Still, Rania sees Kuwait as her home. And she was devasted when she received a Comoro Islands passport last month and was told to settle there within a year.

“This is the ultimate in unfair,” Rania told me. “I couldn’t go with my mom to her home, and now I can’t stay in the place I call home? Why don’t people even ask me what I want?”

Stateless Kuwaiti Bedouin women hold up signs in their tent camp near the Iraqi-Kuwait border that read, "We want to return home."
Faleh Kheiber / Reuters

Semira and Rania are part of deals that UAE and Kuwait signed with Comoros in 2008 and 2016. In exchange for building roads and providing development aid to the poverty-stricken island nation, Emiratis and Kuwaitis are “buying” citizenships for their undocumented residents. Initially, these deals involved only issuing new passports without requirements for holders to physically move out of the Gulf. In recent months, however, it became clear that a growing number of them will have to move to Comoros. Although the official policy remains unclear, some officials say that Comoros began asking that these new "Comorians" move to the islands, while others believe that the Gulf countries are simply trying to get rid of their stateless population.

Regardless, activists have condemned the practice, likening it to slavery—the selling of a person and the economizing of what is a human right. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” Comorians have protested, too, feeling that the government is essentially selling their nation’s soul, while populations in the Gulf argue that this is a solution that fails to resolve the thorny issues of statelessness or citizen transfer.

On the other hand, the Philippines, from which a number of people move to the Gulf for work, has come up with alternative laws to prevent statelessness. In 1987, its government passed a law allowing Philippine citizenship to pass through both the mother and father. That allows most of the Filipina women I interviewed in the Gulf to take their children home with them if and when they have to leave. The Philippine embassy in both Kuwait and the UAE also offer shelter to children whose mothers are incarcerated or are on trial for zina and they make sure to provide passports for these new citizens.

Instead of shipping their problems off to Comoros, Gulf countries could at the very least negotiate citizen transfers with sending nations or encourage them to follow the example of the Philippines, as a start. After all, their tactic of offshoring their stateless population is unsustainable in the long run. Comoros will realize at some point that this is a bad bargain. There are nearly one million stateless people in the Gulf and the population of Comoros is only 730,000 (and the island nation is about the size of Rhode Island). It is ill equipped to deal with dramatic increases to its population and in a few years time, the Gulf countries may find themselves back to square one.

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  • PARDIS MAHDAVI is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Pomona College. She is the author of Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution and Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai.
  • More By Pardis Mahdavi