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Lebanese Born İn Sierra Leone Denied Birth Citizenship

11.07.2016 10:48

Ethnic Lebanese people born in Sierra Leone are not eligible to be citizens of the country by birth.

This is because the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution and the Citizenship Act says that Sierra Leoneans born in the country who are not of "Afro-Negro descent" – meaning black – are not automatically citizens of the country. They can only become citizens through naturalization based on conditions as prescribed by law.

This has disenfranchised over 5,000 ethnic Lebanese in the country from being Sierra Leonean citizens by birth even though they were actually born in the country.

The Lebanese first came to Sierra Leone in the 1950s in the wake of the Lebanon-Syrian wars, and many who were born in Sierra Leone feels discriminated against by this clause since they are not of Afro-Negro origin.

The Constitution also makes provisions for the acquisition of citizenship through marriage, naturalization, and descent. A Lebanese national who marries a Sierra Leonean citizen is eligible to become a Sierra Leonean citizen. But they think that that is not enough.

As a result, one Sierra Leonean Lebanese national refused his Sierra Leonean passport because the passport authority labeled him a "citizen by naturalization not by birth" after he was born in the country to Lebanese parents over 40 years ago.

-Born and bred

Nasser Ayoub told Anadolu Agency that he was born in the diamond-rich district of Kono in eastern Sierra Leone to Lebanese and Palestinian parents over four decades ago.

"I was born and bred here, went to school here, and I have been living all my life here," he said. "So why should the government deny me the right to become a citizen in my place of birth?"

Ayoub, a musician and philanthropist, argues that using the term "Afro-Negro descent" in the Sierra Leone Constitution as a yardstick to decide if someone is eligible to be a citizen by birth is racist and unacceptable.

"It's like telling the entire world that white people born in Sierra Leone are strangers, foreigners, and should be discriminated against. In this 21st century, such laws are not fit for civilized nations," he stressed.

Ayoub is campaigning for the Constitutional Review Committee, which is currently reassessing the country's laws, to review that section to end the injustice against Sierra Leone's minority Lebanese population. "Otherwise, I will continue to be stateless, as well as my kids," he said.

But the Lebanese citizenship issue is a thorny one for most Sierra Leoneans, because they are seen as foreigners and merchants.

On the other hand, under Lebanon's legal code, descendants of Lebanese emigrants can only receive citizenship from their father, and women can neither pass on citizenship to their children nor extend it to their foreign spouses.

This law implies that when a Lebanese woman marries a foreigner – say, a Sierra Leonean man – he will never gain Lebanese citizenship, nor will her children. Lebanese citizenship is acquired through what is called in Latin "Jus Sanguinis," meaning citizenship by blood.

Some think that is why Lebanese women do not want to marry Sierra Leonean men.

This is another issue some Sierra Leoneans are using against Lebanese.

-Wealth and privilege

Lebanese Sierra Leoneans control a good chunk of the Sierra Leonean economy. Many major businesses like hotels and restaurants, supermarkets, entertainment spots, transportation, and petroleum products, are owned by them.

That is why some people think giving them the right to be citizens by birth would privilege the wealth they have already acquired in this poor West African nation.

Sumanna Sillah, an elderly man in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone, says giving Lebanese the right to be Sierra Leonean citizens by birth would be an insult to the country's "natives."

"They don't allow their daughters to marry black Sierra Leoneans. They always treat us like we are not important even in their homes and offices, where they recruit Sierra Leonean as maids and housekeepers. They are also not part of our cultural practices. How can they be citizens?" he asked angrily.

Another resident in the north of the country agreed.

Auto mechanic Momoh Sheriff, 35, thinks Lebanese nationals are in Sierra Leone for business and commerce. "They smuggle our diamonds and promote corruption. So they must be treated as such," he claimed.

"We are all Sierra Leoneans because we come from villages. Can the Lebanese Sierra Leoneans show us their villages?" he said in an interview with Anadolu Agency.

But Hannah Webber, a university student, thinks differently. "I don't understand why the phrase 'Afro-Negro descent' should still exist in our constitution when civilized nations have eliminated it altogether. If Lebanese are born in Sierra Leone, they should be Sierra Leonean citizens. That's how it should be because even Sierra Leoneans born in America are American citizens."

While the debate continues, the Constitutional Review Committee says they will listen to the views of the public and forward them to Parliament for consideration.

The chairman of the committee, Justice Edmond Cowan, says its role is to gather public views and suggestions and send them to Parliament.

"Parliament will have to discuss the recommendations, to either agree or disagree, and send to the president for his signature an amended constitution," he said.

The presence of the Lebanese community in Sierra Leone is very significant, so it should be given its rights to be free in its land of birth says Samir Hasaniyeh, a leader of the Lebanese community in Sierra Leone.

"We have Lebanese here who have never visited Lebanon. We are asking for fairness in the laws," he added. -

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