'Pealtnägija': Syrian national in Tallinn mired in citizenship black hole

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Mohammed Dibou on Wednesday's edition of 'Pealtnägija'. Source: ERR

ETV investigative show 'Pealtnägija' investigated the case of a Syrian national who has been resident in Estonia for a decade now and, while desiring taking Estonian citizenship, finds himself unable too, due to bureaucratic complications relating to the war-torn nation, as well as Estonia's putative bar on dual citizenship.

The man, 38-year-old Mohammed Dibou, returned to Estonia with his Estonian wife, after the Syrian civil war, as part of the wider-scale Arab Spring, broke out in 2011. The pair had met and married in Tartu in 2007, and relocated to Syria in 2010.

Syria has not issued documentation releasing Dibou from his original citizenship, meaning he cannot obtain Estonian citizenship, despite ticking all the other boxes, including attaining the required language level (B1 under the Common European Framework – ed.).

Lack of proof of citizenship does not equate to proof of non-citizenship

Dibou's plight is quite a common one in Estonia, which on paper does not permit dual citizenship,* including in the case of those who are unable to prove that they no longer hold any other citizenship.

Ruth Annus, head of the citizenship and migration policy department at the interior ministry, told Pealtnägija that the issue of relinquishing another nation's citizenship was the business of that country.

She said: "The conditions under which, and whether, a state will in any way release a citizen from citizenship are down to the citizenship policy of that state; other countries do not interfere in this."

PPA efforts to contact Syrian authorities fruitless

Nonetheless, Pealtnägija reported, Estonia's Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), has twice attempted to contact Syrian authorities, with a view to requesting his release from citizenship, but to no avail. Letters and emails remain unanswered, and the authority closed the case, for the time being, last month.

Mohammed holds a residence permit for an indefinite term, due to the length of time he has already been residing in Estonia, but in the mean time his Syrian passport expired two years ago, meaning he cannot travel abroad and was in effect stateless, according to Uljana Ponomarjova, a lawyer who works on behalf of displaced persons. So-called "gray passport holders" in Estonia refer to mainly Russian-speaking people who are citizens neither of Estonia, nor of the Russian Federation, nor anywhere else, can still travel to many countries using the travel document which gives the group of people its name. This would not likely be a solution for Dibou either, due to the same issue - not being able to prove he had been released from his Syrian citizenship.

Dibou and his family next approached the organization Ponomarjova works for, the Estonian Center for Human Rights (Eesti inimõiguste keskus) on the matter, joining four other people with the same issue: One fellow Syrian, two Iranians, and a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, "Pealtnägija" reported.

Dibou's case has a particularly strong legal foundation, "Pealtnägija" said, meaning the center will pursue it with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Family settled in Estonia, been here 10 years

Mohammed Dibou, who has opened up a restaurant in Tallinn, said he had first applied for Estonian citizenship a couple of years ago, given his wife is a citizen, and they have a seven-year-old son together and are settled here, with the child in school in Tallinn. He, Mohammed, also passed the language exam.

Syria has no embassy in Estonia, but Mohammed said he had contacted those it does have in Poland and Belarus, again without success as to even if his application had arrived in Damascus.

He was also told that Syria's foreign ministry forbade even discussing the issue, while there are also potential safety issues tied in with relinquishing citizenship in Mohammed's home country.

Uljana Ponomarjova told "Pealtnägija" that: "Some sources...do not even recommend to Syrian citizens trying to relinquish citizenship to do so, because it will immediately send out a red flag, as it were. You are effectively stating you are leaving the country," noting that in the case of non-democratic regimes, "betrayal" of the state can carry with it severe repercussions.

Undemocratic regimes often do not look kindly on releasing citizenship

Experts further say that while in theory, being released from Syrian citizenship is possible under law, the al-Assad regime would in practice not countenance such a thing, while those who apply for it are often maligned as terrorists or similar.

"I knew for a long time that this could not be carried out; it is a very dangerous subject to talk about," Mohammed said.

Estonian authorities meanwhile see Syria as a failed state that will not communicate; at the same time, failed communications are not grounds for assuming renounced citizenship on their own.

Liis Valk, PPA adviser on identity and status, said she could not comment on the non-release of citizenship.

"What we can suggest is for a person to try again and wait, when there may be a slightly better situation in the country (i.e. Syria), and then go through the process again," Valk said, also drawing the distinction between a conscious decision on the part of the country of origin not to release an individual from citizenship, and applications simply getting lost in a pile of paperwork.

No citizenship, no passport

Dibou grew up in Hamah province, later wining a scholarship to the St. Petersburg State Academy of Arts, where he later met his wife, Tanja, originally from Tartu.

After their time in Syria, Tanja returned to Estonia in the fall of 2011, with Mohammed following on a few months later.

While permanent residency instills in him the right to reside, work and vote (in local elections at least – ed.), "Pealtnägija" reported, it does not extend full citizenship rights, which would include voting in all elections, travel documentation etc.

Asylum, meanwhile, is not on the table either, Ruth Annus, from the interior ministry, said.

"In accordance with international law, the right to obtain asylum applies if a person faces the very real threat of torture, persecution or death if they return to his or her country of origin. /.../ But [Dibou] lives in the Republic of Estonia in complete security, so there is no need for any additional protection," she said.

In the meantime, reapplying for a Syrian passport, in order to travel, was not on the cards either, Tanja Dibou told "Pealtnägija".

She said: "If we want to go abroad, he must in effect make the decision to apply for a Syrian passport, in order to travel. But it would be a very bad decision, because this is precisely how we show that we want to live like this, how we show this to the Syrian state… [applying for a Syrian passport] would also show the Estonian state that we do not need Estonian citizenship, that we accept what we have, our decision is that we will not do this and do not need to travel, we just require a safe and a happy life in Estonia."

The original "Pealtnägija" segment (in Estonian) is here.

*In fact those who are citizens of another country but who have Estonian citizenship by blood (i.e. parents, grandparents were from Estonia, post-independence established in 1920) often in practice have a dual citizenship when they cannot be stripped of that right in either country's case. This article looks at the thorny issue in more detail.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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