Born without a country, this 8-year old girl is the face of a citizenship dispute between Cuba and South Africa

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A little girl’s desire to go to school exposed the cracks of citizenship laws in Cuba and South Africa. The girl, now 8, was deemed stateless until a court ordered the South African government to grant her citizenship this week. Her Cuban parents have been fighting for her rights for most of the child’s life.

On Sept. 6, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s judgement that the girl should be recognized as a South African citizen, her lawyers said in a statement. The ruling also ordered the ministry of home affairs to draw up regulations to allow other stateless children the chance to apply for citizenship.

Without citizenship and an identity number, she could not graduate, go to university, get married, or even have her death registered. Citizenship isn’t only a matter of national pride, but access to many state institutions and benefits in a world where international borders still hold much power.

“Daniela’s case is an example of how a child can fall through the cracks of nationality laws and citizenship provisions,” said Jacob van Garderen, director of Lawyers for Human Rights.

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs argued that the child could be granted permanent residence and become a naturalized citizen, according to documents filed to the court. They also said the judge violated the separation of state and judiciary when he ordered for new regulations. Still, despite launching the appeal and a two-year battle between courts, the government dropped the case at the last minute.

Daniela’s lawyers argued that permanent residence would not equate to citizenship, and that the child would always be a foreigner in the country she was born in. Further, the process of obtaining permanent residence could take between five and ten years.

Daniela was born in Cape Town in 2008. She was issued a birth certificate without an identity number because her parents were foreigners. Kenia Maria Rodriguez Garcia simply assumed her daughter was Cuban. The Cuban Embassy in South Africa, however, refused to grant Daniela citizenship on the basis that her mother’s absence from the island nation made her a “permanent emigrant,” thus excluding her child from citizenship rights.

Garcia came to South Africa in 2005 as an engineer participating in a bilateral treaty. She is now a permanent resident in South Africa, but still found that her child’s rights were limited. Garcia says she hated exposing her daughter to public scrutiny, but is grateful that other parents will be spared the ordeal.