Thousands of stateless people in the UAE may receive Emirati citizenship by extending the remit of a committee that has already granted citizenship to the children of Emirati mothers, the Ministry of Presidential Affairs has announced.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, announced late on Wednesday night that stateless applications for full citizenship will now be considered by the so-called "Children of Emirati Mothers Committee".
The committee has been reviewing the cases of children of Emirati mothers married to non-nationals.
The decision, made on the orders of the President, Sheikh Khalifa, will, for the first time, establish a defined mechanism for granting citizenship to stateless people, promising to systematically clear a long backlog of applications.
There is no exact figure for the number of stateless people living in the UAE.
Officials estimate there are up to 10,000, but some rights groups estimate their numbers to be significantly higher.
The plight of many of the stateless began when parents or grandparents did not possess proper documentation of their status at the time of the country's formation.
But authorities fear many of the stateless are originally of Iranian, Syrian or Palestinian descent who destroyed their documents in a bid to gain UAE citizenship.
Previous initiatives to tackle the problem and grant citizenship have moved slowly.
By extending the powers of the so-called "Children of Emirati Mothers Committee", established last December in a decree by Sheikh Khalifa, the process is expected to move significantly faster and in a more systematic way.
The committee is headed by Ahmed Juma Al Za'abi, and includes representatives of the Presidential Affairs ministry, the Ministry of the Interior and the State Security Service.
It moved rapidly in December to tackle the issue of children born to Emirati mothers, holding meetings with families, travelling abroad to find and interview children, and completing in-depth research to arrive at an exact number of children affected. In a matter of months, the committee was able to grant citizenship to 1,117 children.
In a major first step, the committee yesterday recommended that stateless people being considered for citizenship be immediately be treated like UAE Nationals, with an equal right to public education and healthcare services. It said citizenship would then be granted to those who have evidence - in the form of documentation or witnesses - to back up their claim to be native to the UAE.
Applicants must first legalise their status in the UAE, a step many have taken by obtaining passports from the Comoros islands. Those applicants will be the first to be considered, members of the committee said.
Others whose parents had passports issued by individual Emirates before the foundation of the UAE, but were never issued documents of their own, will be able to apply by providing their parents' passports.
The committee said each case would be dealt with individually on its merits, according to the "extent of co-operation in providing complete and accurate details".
Many stateless people were overjoyed by the news of the latest decision, ending for some a decades-long wait to normalise their status.
Umm Mohamed, from Abu Dhabi, said it would come as great relief. "We have always been deprived from health and education, we are labelled as if we have nothing," she said.
She added many were stateless as a result of their family papers being lost generations ago, before even the foundation of the UAE.
Others, she said, failed to register their children, as many births previously took place at home. And some were orphaned, being looked after by extended family members.
Umm Mohamed believes this is the most promising effort to resolve the situation yet, as the committee has "already proved how active they are".
Umm Sultan, also stateless, said she would have a "feast" if she won citizenship.
"I love the UAE, this is my home, passport or no passport," she said. "But with the passport all my problems would go. I will be able to make my children live a happy life, not burdened because their grandparents lost their papers."
Dr Mona Al Bahar, a member of the Federal National Council from Dubai and deputy head of care and rehabilitation at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, welcomed the move.
"I think this decision is most wise, and in its place," she said. "It will create greater stability for people, for families, and for society."
She said it would help many people who live and were raised here, and whose allegiance is to the country.
"Not only will it create better stability, but also give them an active role in society, granting them the nationality is very important. It is most wise."