Stateless and for Sale in the Gulf

Letter from Dubai

An aerial view of Nad Al Sheba Desert in Dubai, December 9, 2015. Karim Sahib / Reuters

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

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