In Libya, those who seek citizenship must often provide evidence they don’t have of lives and events that happened on Libyan soil decades ago, but are put to the test of modern bureaucracy.
Criteria are inconsistent and practicalities obscure. Full civil rights remain a distant dream for some of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
More than ten million people around the world are stateless or struggle to obtain any citizenship, according to UNHCR. Some states or governments purposely exclude segments of their population from obtaining nationality – for different reasons, such as ethnic and religious discrimination, interstate conflicts, recent shifts of borders or failure to record all resident population when gaining independence.
In Libya, as well, many have lost their Libyan citizenship or never had it, despite living here all their lives. Libya’s Resolution (538) of 1981 acknowledged that more than 14,000 Tuareg families were stateless – but only 7,102 of them were granted citizenship by the later Resolution (328) of 2009.
These were only the Tuareg families who had been included in the temporary population registry until 1981. The legal status of all others continues to hang in the balance.
While there are no official figures on stateless persons in Libya, many victim accounts suggest that there are between 40,000 and 60,000 of them.
Under the Radar of Census-Takers
The family of Yousef Abdulkareem, a 54-year-old teacher, has its roots in the Kufra district in Worouy, a small oasis in Libya’s far south, right at the border with Chad. His father used to tend to his flock in these remote border lands for certain months of the year.
Although the area lies officially within Libyan territory – and is displayed as such on Google Maps – it flew completely under the radar of census-takers in both 1954 and 1964, which is why Yousef’s family was not registered.
At the time, census-takers covered more central areas in southern Libya, but skipped remote places like the southern wadis in Kufra and Uweinat. A lack of information on whether anyone actually lived there and where to find them certainly made their job very difficult.
Nevertheless, Yousef’s family succeeded in having their names added to the district registry of Kufra in 1975, only for the public prosecutor to suspend this registry two years later, when it included 43 families. And while this decision was revoked only a week later, the local office of the Civil Registry Authority refused to add the families to its citizen records.
Unwilling to give up, Youssef filed a lawsuit against the Civil Registry, which he won. The court’s decision, however, was met yet again with reluctance from the authorities in Kufra.
Khadeeja Aendedy (35), an architect and women’s representative in the Higher Council of the Tuareg Libya, does not enjoy the full rights of a Libyan citizen. She is still classified as a ‘temporary citizen’ by her country.
A temporary registry was established in 1971 as per Resolution (193) by the Minister of the Interior and the local government, as a sort of waiting list for those whose status as citizens had first to be verified.
It was also called the ‘returnee registry’, as it basically included the names of those who had returned from abroad after the census and establishment of the civil registry, but had not completed the necessary legal and bureaucratic procedures to be granted nationality, like Khadeeja’s family.
A Libyan by birth, upbringing and soul who has never once left Libya, Khadeeja says she is heartbroken over the fact that she is not entitled to all the rights and benefits of a citizen. Since she and her family are on the ‘temporary registry’, they have no national identity numbers.
The Administrative Number System
The so-called ‘administrative number’ was introduced in 2013, after a group of Tuareg in southwest Libya shut down the Al-Sharara oil field in protest, in order to exert pressure on the government. They demanded that their legal procedures be finalised at last and that they be given Libyan citizenship.
In response, the Libyan government issued temporary administrative numbers to facilitate simple tasks such as the payment of salaries. These are inferior to the national identity number, however, and the system continues to restrict its bearers, certain groups of Libyan society, in the most fundamental ways. They still cannot enrol in state schools, get treatment in public hospitals or open a bank account, let alone travel.
Khadeeja has a family registration number and all papers required by the Nationality Law in order to obtain citizenship, as do so many other Tuaregs on the temporary registry. But her legal procedures have been handed from one government to the next since the days of Gaddafi, alongside empty promises of resolution and citizenship.
Khadeeja believes that racial discrimination against the Tuareg and Tubu, as well as military exploitation of their youth, are the major reasons behind the procrastination.
Gaddafi managed to recruit young Tuaregs for his brigades with the promise of citizenship, but only a small circle within the Khamis Brigade of Gaddafi’s youngest son were eventually given the privilege.
Later, after the 17 February Revolution in 2011, which sparked a series of civil wars, young Tuareg continued to be exploited by armed groups, as several witness accounts confirm.
The situation of people who should have benefited from the administrative number became more difficult in the years after its introduction, especially from 2014 onwards.
It became impossible to register births (even on the temporary registry) and deaths, or to issue separate family booklets for newlyweds. This meant the new-borns of those on the temporary registry were doomed to lose their nationality.
In August 2018, Mohammed Beltamer, Director of the Civil Registry Authority, wrote to the heads of the local branches requesting that they provide him with an inventory of the family files included on the temporary registry.
He claimed in his letter that the “returnee registry” had, unintended by the legislator, transformed from a temporary registration system for those seeking to prove their “Libyan origin” into a permanent alternative to the Civil Registry.
His phrase “Libyan origin” deserves special attention. It is not a phrase found in the Libyan Nationality Law No. (24) of 2010, where section (2) states the following:
A person shall be considered Libyan […] if they were a regular resident of Libya on 10/07/1951 and did not hold a foreign nationality, provided they complied with any of the following conditions:
1-They were born in Libya;
2-They were born outside Libya, provided either of their parents were born therein;
3-They were born outside Libya and resided therein as a regular resident for a period of no less than ten consecutive years prior to 10/07/1951.
The Law makes it very clear that anyone who resided in Libya before 1951 and had no other nationality is Libyan. In theory, this gives many people in Libya whose status is currently in limbo the right to citizenship. Beltamer’s notion of “Libyan origin” eludes our understanding and invites interpretation and arbitrariness.
Administrative Number Committee: No Great Expectations
We wrote to the Administrative Number Committee, which acts on behalf of the Civil Registry Authority, to inquire about the effectiveness of the system and its benefits for the concerned social groups.
We received a brief response from its chair, Tareq Qweder. He describes the difficult circumstances of their work: They have no possibilities and face many hurdles and serious threats; they are lacking in support and budget from the Authority and the government; all efforts rely on their own initiative; and they are not even entitled to living or danger allowances for working in the south.
All this chaos has been caused, he adds, by those who had applied for the administrative number in more than one office and inflated the case load unnecessarily. This had made the Committee’s mission increasingly difficult.
Qweder argues that “this is a matter of National Security and Territorial Integrity for Libya. Therefore, neither the Civil Registry nor the Administrative Number Committee can take people by their word only or grant nationality arbitrarily.”
Finally, he concedes that the absence of political will and constitutional laws exacerbates the problem and encumbers the development of a real and permanent solution.