Qatar must restore Al-Ghufran citizenship
At a UN meeting on statelessness in Geneva on Oct. 7, Qatar must pledge to restore the citizenship of all members of the Al-Ghufran community whose nationality was stripped in 2004. Since Doha is intent on showing the world that it aspires to world standards — including by ratifying, with notable reservations, the UN’s Bill of Rights — this is its only option.
In October 2004, Qatar’s Ministry of Interior issued an administrative decree revoking the citizenship of at least 5,266 members of the Al-Ghufran clan, about 5 percent of the population at the time. There were no exceptions for the infirm, children or widows.
The government said that in contravention to nationality laws, the Al-Ghufran possessed another citizenship, but it did not allow a legal challenge to this assertion, which was arbitrary and not subject to any independent review.
Some have suggested that the act was political, removing voters expected to support opponents of the-then emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in scheduled local elections. Or that it was retribution for support that members of the clan had given to a failed counter-coup in 1996, following the 1995 seizure of power by Sheikh Hamad from his father. Sheikh Hamad, who ruled after the 1995 coup, handed power to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, in 2013.
At the end of 2004 and the first half of 2005, the government acted on the decree and an unknown number of the Al-Ghufran community faced deportation proceedings. Despite assurances regarding jobs and remaining in Qatar, throughout 2005 thousands reportedly sought refuge with relatives in nearby areas of Saudi Arabia.
Deprived of their citizenship, those affected could no longer hold state employment, property or bank accounts, and were denied access to social services or state education. Some were harassed and detained under flawed legislation. Promises on jobs and living standards were forgotten. In some cases, the government cut electricity and water supplies to communities and to specific homes, ignoring whether there were vulnerable people who might need these services.
In 2006, the government reportedly changed its policy and restored citizenship to many members of the community.
Al-Ghufran members who returned have been denied access to specific forms of employment and access to government services that are available to Qatari nationals
The head of Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), himself a member of the Al-Murra tribe, claimed in August 2008 that 95 percent of the clan had had citizenship restored. He told me that the matter had become insignificant and that most had been reintegrated into Qatari society, with full rights.
Such assertions were difficult to measure and the truth appears more complicated: Some family members — arguably a small portion of the community — have told me that on their return to Qatar the government restored citizenship on a selective basis only.
The government has been opaque about this issue and many others still remain in Saudi Arabia, where their fate appears clearer and safer, and where many appear to have taken citizenship. Nevertheless, it appears that many Al-Ghufran once again live in Qatar. And stark discrimination remains.
Members of the community who returned in 2006-2017 have been, or continue to be, denied access to specific forms of employment as well as to health, social and other government services that are available to Qatari nationals.
Amid the unfolding dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, midway through 2017, Abdulhadi Al-Ghufran Al-Marri, 26, returned to Qatar with his brother Fahad, now 17, and other members of his large family.
For over a week, the Qatari authorities held the family, including young children, at the border before granting them entry. These two brothers remain without citizenship, even if they are back in Qatar.
They are not allowed to hold bank accounts or a driver’s license, while another brother, Mohammed, cannot go to university. The two brothers worked training falcons for basic pay. A charity supports the entire family, including four sisters, to help them get by. The sisters are unable to marry.
One of their relatives, Saleh Mohammed Al-Kohlah, 34, expelled during the wave of citizenship revocations, returned in 2011 on a Saudi passport and filed a claim with the NHRC to restore his nationality, but the NHRC appears not to have acted on his case.
This conduct flies in the face of international human rights standards.
In September 2017, Qatar stripped the citizenship of Sheikh Talib bin Mohammed bin Lahoum bin Sherim Al-Murra, the head of the tribe in Qatar, along with 54 members of his family. They left for Saudi Arabia. He is reported to have said: “My citizenship will return, for me and my family whether the emir of Qatar likes it or not, for both me and the Al-Ghufran (tribe) who also had their citizenships revoked.” In October 2017, the government revoked the nationality of a well-known poet, Mohammed Al-Marri.
The June 2017 diplomatic crisis among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, combined with Qatari women’s inability to confer nationality on children and spouses on an equal basis with Qatari men, resulted in threats to family unity and other hardships.
Children and spouses of Qatari women who are denied access to Qatari citizenship and who hold the nationality of other GCC countries feared expulsion from Qatar or an inability to return to the country. One Qatari woman married to a Bahraini man reported that her family could not visit her husband’s relatives, stating: “We are afraid to try to go to Bahrain because my husband and children might be banned from coming back to Qatar.”
While new policies have addressed this situation in terms of mixed nationality families, it appears to remain the case that the children and spouses of Qatari women continue to be denied access to a range of rights and privileges as a result of Qatari women’s inability to confer nationality on an equal basis with men.
Reports about the Al-Ghufran started filtering out in 2005. International human rights organizations have published information on the fate of the clan, notably in 2017. In October 2018 three NGOs, including the Rights Realization Center, raised the issue. The same year, Al-Ghufran clan members raised their case with UN officials. In 2019, Human Rights Watch campaigned on the issue.
We are not going away. In September 2019, nine NGOs spoke out about Qatar’s human rights record, expressing “concerned that certain groups such as the Bidoon and others remain stateless, and that under the nationality law, individuals may be stripped of their citizenship.”
Qatar can — and must — do better.
• Drewery Dyke is a researcher specializing in international advocacy relating to human rights in GCC countries.