In a world where borders define identity and citizenship, there exists a population that remains invisible, trapped in a state of despair and anguish.
They are the stateless – devoid of nationality, lacking legal recognition, and shunned by society.
Their existence is a poignant reminder of not only a local but a serious global issue which often goes unnoticed.
In Namibia, the government estimates that over 140 000 people are stateless, including the undocumented.
Stateless people are those who do not have citizenship in any country, while undocumented people lack legal documentation to prove their identity and citizenship.
Both groups often face challenging circumstances, and are vulnerable to human rights abuses.
Last week, New Era accompanied officials from the immigration ministry to the Oshikoto region, where they continued with the ongoing outreach programme aimed at identifying and documenting the stateless community.
The strong delegation was spearheaded by deputy minister Daniel Kashikola, donned, as always, in his black beret and dark goggles.
Deep in the forests of Oshikoto, the delegation encountered Hendrina Venolutandu, who said she arrived in Namibia at the dawn of independence.
She had high hopes, among them the enjoyment of the benefits of the new freedom.
Her hopes, however, were short-lived.
More than 30 years later, she finds herself trapped in a state of uncertainty, where her legal status in an independent Namibia remains a nightmare.
Back in her country of origin, Angola, she is also not recognised as a citizen.
With a face reflecting deep concern and distress, she said: “I am non-existent”.
While her exact age remains a mystery, her baptism certificate indicates she was baptised in 1955.
Venolutandu has eight children, of whom only two obtained Namibian citizenship.
Her eldest daughter, Anastacia Nghiwete (45), also does not have citizenship.
This has had a trickle-down effect on her five children, as they too are stateless.
Beside them sits Tjombe Johannes (68).
His situation is similar to that of Venolutandu and her children, if not worse.
Johannes migrated from Angola during the time of independence, and ended up stateless.
In Namibia, elderly people with legal documents enjoy a buffet of benefits from the country’s much-celebrated social safety nets, among them a monthly pension.
However, despite living in the country for over 30 years, these benefits remain a pipedream for Johannes and co.
“We can’t own land, we can’t own houses and livestock. We can’t even afford to have children because they will also become stateless like us. We have nothing much to do with our lives,” he stated sadly.
Worse is that Johannes has not been able to become a productive person, as his life has been curtailed to a daily routine of waking up and heading to the nearby cuca shops since the 90s.
“What else can I do? Nobody notices me. How can we call ourselves independent when we are forced to live like animals? All I want is to live a normal life, just like everyone else in an independent Namibia”, he vented.
These two elderly individuals live in abject poverty, possessing nothing to their names. The only assistance they receive is drought relief, which is distributed to all households in the village.
Their stateless status has severe repercussions for their descendants, as they are deprived of the opportunity to access proper education and healthcare like their peers.
Similarly, Getrud Nghiyolwa (60) found herself responsible for caring for two children when her cousin disappeared without a trace a decade ago.
“She just dropped her children at my house, and I never saw her again. I searched for her everywhere, with no trace,” she said.
The circumstances left her cousin’s children stateless, as their father’s identity is also unknown.
“I heard their father is from Ongha, but we don’t know who he is,” she said, with a sense of hopelessness.
At the time of her disappearance, the children were one and two years old, but are now enrolled at the Waandja Junior Primary School in the Oshikoto region.
Nghiyolwa is deeply concerned that the children might face difficulties completing their education since having an identity document is a requirement to write national examinations.
Without proper documentation, the children may encounter obstacles in accessing the education they deserve.
“I have tried going to the offices to seek assistance, but got no help because I don’t have proof of their birth. If they do not get documents as soon as possible, these children’s lives will be ruined,” she lamented.
Their headman in the Otanaha village of the Oshikoto region is Jason Waandja, who described in an interview with New Era the living conditions of the stateless people in his village as “unfathomable”.
“They are really suffering, and only depend on me as headman to feed them. When there is no drought relief, they go hungry because, unlike other villagers who at least own fields and can grow their mahangu, these ones cannot because the land is only given to those who have documents,” he asserted.
Currently, Namibia doesn’t have a law which accommodates stateless and undocumented people.
It is, however, not all doom and gloom, as there appears to be a silver lining in this dark cloud of mayhem.
Since last year, the immigration ministry took steps to address the scourge.
According to Kashikola, the ministry envisions ending statelessness by 2025.
Although figures budgeted for the programme are not yet confirmed, he said the ministry’s expenses will run into hundreds of millions [dollars] to ensure everyone is counted.
“That dream can only be realistic depending on the availability of resources. But from the look of things, it’s doable. This is a direct order from the government that we must make sure that there are no stateless and undocumented people in Namibia. That is why we are trying to accelerate the Stateless Determination and Protection Bill, which will [be tabled] in the National Assembly in September. So, we hope to finalise that bill before the session comes to an end,” Kashikola noted.
The ministry has also set wheels in motion to table the Regularisation of Certain Residents in Namibia and Descendants Bill.
“The two bills will affect the Citizenship Act, which will go through an amendment, as well as the Refugee Act, which previously limited the recognition of the stateless,” he said.
Since last year, the ministry embarked on regional tours to engage community members, as well as familiarise themselves with the issues of statelessness in the regions while handing out legal documents to those in need.
Last week, the ministry visited four areas in the forests of the Oshikoto region, where the majority of the people do not have documents.
This is a continuation of the programme which started last year in the Ohangwena region, and will be rolled out to all 14 regions.
About 1 000 people were given documents in the areas visited last week.
“Earlier, I couldn’t get my birth certificate because my father is not Namibian, and my mother died a long time ago. However, I managed to get my mother’s death certificate, which allowed me to finally acquire my own birth certificate. I feel happy that I am officially a Namibian citizen, and therefore my children will also have documents,” Moses Sackaria beamed.
The councillor of Nehale lyaMpingana, Joseph Shilongo, stated that the primary reasons for the statelessness include illegal migration and permanent relocation with no identification documents, lack of essential services in remote regions, and limited access to information.
“But it is mostly a lack of information because these people live about 100km far from the nearest towns. Many are destitute and don’t know what to do or where to go to enquire. For example, if someone doesn’t register the child at birth, it is very unlikely that they will ever register that child,” he added.