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Minority Karanas in Madagascar lead clandestine lives with no citizenship

The island nation aims to end statelessness, but certain laws still marginalize an ethnic group with a history of discrimination

Karanas Madasgascar
An adult and a child work in Antananarivo, Madagascar.SOPA Images (LightRocket via Getty Images)
Lola Hierro

Mahmud Hashimi stirs his cup of coffee as he sits on a spotless sofa in the lobby of the exclusive Carlton hotel in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. A casual onlooker would have no reason to think this 38-year-old man with a nervous look shouldn’t be in this luxurious five-star hotel. But it’s not his natural environment. Hashimi (who prefers not to tell us his real name) cannot afford the $122 (€111) for a room here because he’s barely making ends meet. Even if he had extra money, he wouldn’t be allowed to register because he doesn’t have a passport or an ID card. Hashimi is stateless — a citizen of no country. Being stateless is the inability to vote, access public services, obtain employment contracts or open a bank account.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that at least 10 million people worldwide have no nationality. However, it’s difficult to quantify this accurately because it involves measuring something that officially doesn’t exist. These stateless individuals often belong to marginalized minorities who face discrimination due to their ethnicity, religion or culture. Hashimi belongs to Madagascar’s Karana community, an ethnic minority group that does not automatically receive Malagasy nationality. Although the exact number is not known, community leaders and studies by Focus Development, an organization advocating for Karana rights, suggest that around 5,000 Karanas were stateless in 2018. Approximately 20,000 Karanas on the island have obtained naturalized citizenship through foreign birth, bribery or family connections.

Originally from the India-Pakistan border region, the Karanas emigrated to Madagascar more than a century ago. On a crisp, clear morning in early June, Hashimi told us his family’s story. “My paternal grandparents, they actually came from Afghanistan without any papers or even knowing where they were going. As for my maternal grandfather, he was from South Africa. I don’t really know much about my maternal grandmother, but she definitely wasn’t from here,” said Hashimi. In short, they were all foreigners, so although their children were born in Madagascar, the law did not grant them automatic citizenship.

In the 1960s, Madagascar passed a nationality law that follows the ius sanguinis principle — citizenship is only granted to children born to a Malagasy father or mother. However, when the island gained independence from France in 1960, the Karanas were not given citizenship as they were not considered ethnic Malagasy. Noroarisoa S. Ravaozanany, the president of Focus Development, believes that their strong Muslim identity has also played a role in their ongoing outsider status.

Several generations of statelessness

Hashimi’s parents were stateless, and their six children have been as well. He vividly recalls the moment he first faced the reality of their situation. “I was just six years old and my dad was hardly ever around. They told me that if anyone asked, I should say he’s working overseas,” he said. “And when he and my mother were both away, we had to live with various neighbors so the police wouldn’t get suspicious.”

However, work was not the reason Hashimi’s parents and others were always disappearing. They had to hide from the authorities due to their lack of proper documentation. At the time, people without papers had to pay unaffordable fees to reside legally in Madagascar. They had no choice but to hide to avoid prison because they failed to normalize their immigration status. According to Graham Pote, the UNHCR’s statelessness officer, many individuals continue to be held in prolonged pre-deportation detention because they are not recognized as legal residents and no country wants to accept them. “If you’re in jail, you can’t work. And if you can’t work, there’s no money,” said Hashimi.

Due to costly biometric identification fees, Ravaozanany says many Karanas now live in Madagascar illegally. Those who can pay the annual $330 (€300) residence permit fee receive a card with “indeterminate” listed as their nationality.

In 2017, an amendment to the nationality law was passed that allowed the children of a Malagasy woman and foreign man to receive citizenship from their mothers (this was previously prohibited). “Out of the 26 countries that still have similar laws, Madagascar was actually the first to eliminate that restriction. However, the administrative status of the Karanas still remains unresolved.,” said Pote.

Mahmud Hashimi, an ethnic Karana, during our interview in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Mahmud Hashimi, an ethnic Karana, during our interview in Antananarivo, Madagascar.Graham Pote

According to a 2017 UNHCR survey, almost all the Karana respondents said they unsuccessfully tried to obtain citizenship. They mentioned paying lawyers and submitting document requests for years with no response. According to the report, some say Malagasy passports can be acquired for overseas medical travel at a cost, but these are confiscated upon return.

Pote warns that statelessness primarily impacts Karanas with limited resources as they are unable to afford any form of documentation. “But you see, a Karana doesn’t have to be born in Madagascar. If they’re from another country like France or the United States, they won’t have any issues whatsoever,” said Pote. Indeed, some Karanas have obtained French citizenship through a program that France has offered to residents of its former colonies.

Having money makes obtaining a residence permit easier. The Karanas are well-known as successful entrepreneurs and dominate a sizeable part of the Malagasy economy. In 2017, Forbes listed five Karanas among the top 10 multi-millionaires in Madagascar, including Ylias Akbaraly, the owner of Sipromad Group, Madagascar’s largest privately-owned company. “Some people have been able to start businesses and find success, but it’s often because they have a passport or an ID that allows them to do so. And they probably obtained them by paying bribes,” said Pote.

Persistent racism

The state is hesitant to grant citizenship to the Karanas primarily because it would enable them to purchase land, a privilege reserved for nationals. This is a sensitive matter as the Malagasy people deeply cherish the land of the “Great Red Island,” which they view as a cherished inheritance from their ancestors. “There’s this stereotype that all of them are rich, and that’s why people think if they’re given papers and rights, they’ll buy up all the land,” said Ravaozanany.

Racism is a blatant reality. Since the 1980s, hate campaigns have ravaged minority neighborhoods in Madagascar, etching lasting memories in Hashimi’s mind. “Back in the 1990s, there were so many riots happening. People were attacking our shops and we had to hide in mosques. I still remember seeing how they destroyed those shops. If people found out you were a Karana, they automatically assumed you were a bad person.”

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has reported that since 2010, over 100 people have been kidnapped and released after paying hefty ransoms. “Their economic status and negative public attitudes towards immigrants make it really tough to gain support for efforts to improve their legal status,” said Ravaozanany. “The Malagasy do not discriminate against stateless people, but they do discriminate against Karanas.”

Beyond that privileged circle lie the poorest, like Hashimi and his family. He doesn’t have a formal job and cannot sign an employment contract. “I make my living by connecting people who want to buy and sell various goods,” he said. Every month, his target is to earn 500,000 ariary ($112) to cover expenses like electricity, rent, school fees and rice. While he rarely reaches this goal, he is fortunate that his wife is a Malagasy teacher, which helps them get by.

Due to changes in the nationality law, Hashimi’s three children can now obtain citizenship through their mother. The Karana statelessness issue is also starting to get more attention from elected officials. In December 2019, Senator Mourad Abdirassoul introduced a bill with the goal of eliminating statelessness by 2024. The bill is currently under review.

Hashimi stopped paying his residence tax in 2000 when he moved to Fianarantsoa, located in the center of the island. “Over there, the police don’t really care who’s who. Plus, I’ve been trying to fit in with the community where I live, and they’ve been really welcoming,” he said. But he also says it’s crucial to keep his statelessness a secret.

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