On April 6th, the Home Office fulfilled a commitment of which they should rightly be proud. A change to the immigration rules means that, for the first time, stateless people stranded in legal limbo in the UK will have a route to rebuild their lives.
Stateless people are a select, forgotten group with no recognised right to citizenship in the UK or elsewhere (this shouldn’t be confused with undocumented migrants, who have their own complex needs). The people who will be helped by this rule change are narrowly defined under international law, and the number of people affected here is relatively small. By Asylum Aid’s estimate, the stateless population in the UK grows by around 100 each year. But whatever the precise numbers involved, this is a group for whom a solution was badly needed.
Our research found that stateless men and women are sometimes left destitute and vulnerable to exploitation on our streets. Some have been stuck in our immigration detention centres for months, with no hope of return to any country. Some have been separated from their spouses and children for years.
One stateless man interviewed for the Mapping Statelessness in the UK report explained how often his legal limbo left him hungry or without a stable home. One freezing evening, he found himself with no roof over his head and nowhere safe to go. “I spent the night walking around the town centre from 10pm until 9am”, he explained. “I was afraid to lie down and sleep in case I was attacked or robbed.” He didn’t want to live this way. “This is really killing me.”
Among his paperwork was the verdict of an Immigration Judge that he was stateless and needed to be helped accordingly. But there has never been a procedure in the UK for doing so, until now. The introduction of such a procedure was the keynote recommendation of Mapping Statelessness, and after several months of constructive work with officials this recommendation has been realised. This has been achieved working in tandem with the UN Refugee Agency, whose expertise tackling statelessness worldwide has borne fruit here.
So it is good news for stateless people, and good news for those of us who have spent the last year pushing for change. It is also smart politics.
The new rules might help take some pressure off the asylum system – to which we found that many stateless people turned in desperation – at a time when the government has said that it is committed to getting more asylum decisions right first time. It might, by extension, help avoid the sort of delays and backlogs which have caused such embarrassment to Ministers in recent years - and which show worrying signs of returning. It is a show of good sense on immigration at a time when so many high-pitched voices compete for attention on all sides.
But this sort of sound, long-term planning comes at a time when stability is in extremely short supply. Better provisions for stateless people will be rolled-out at a time when immigration work has been thrown into almighty flux.
The government’s patience with the UK Border Agency has finally run out, and the Home Secretary put the Agency out of its misery last month. This was followed last month by the removal of legal aid from nearly all immigration cases with some exceptions - hard fought for by charities and a handful of MPs - covering some victims of domestic violence. This means that stateless people applying under the new rules will largely be frozen out of legal aid when they do so, rather undermining the route out of limbo which the new procedure is supposed to provide.
The absence of legal aid is not the only deficiency to the changes. There are certainly reasons to take issue with aspects of the new procedure. It is questionable, for example, whether adequate support will be in place for stateless people while their claim is considered, or whether they will have access to an effective right of appeal if they are refused. It remains to be seen whether Home Office officials will play their part in gathering the complex evidence needed to demonstrate that someone is stateless, evidence which can be notoriously difficult for people to obtain on their own.
We will need to be vigilant in monitoring how the new procedure is rolled-out in practice, something hindered by the lack of adequate legal aid provision.
So much comes back to legal aid. Funding will remain in place for fighting asylum cases – the daily work of charities – but a central plank of funding has nonetheless been stripped away. This is funding on which organisations like Asylum Aid rely. To continue to help the people who need us, including stateless people availing themselves of the new immigration rules, we will need to be still more innovative with resources which are already tightly stretched.
As in other areas of the cuts, economic arguments have clashed and austerity has won. The need to cut costs now, at a time when the public purse is running perilously low, has taken precedence over warnings that every pound saved today simply stores up much higher costs in the future. And the moral question has been quietly sidestepped: civil society may have raised broader concerns about the poorest losing access to justice, but it has held little sway with government.
So refugees in the UK waiting to be reunited with spouses and children stranded overseas are no longer entitled to help from a lawyer in getting their families to safety (such ‘family reunion’ applications can necessitate DNA testing and the recovery of long-lost documents; Home Office spin that all this is straightforward is pure cant). The financial support available to asylum seekers is already very slender, and legal aid to fight decisions to remove that support has been taken away.
More parents and children separated for longer. No help for people staring down the barrel of destitution. We are likely to see the chaotic impact of these changes in the very near future.
And yet, in the midst of this, the rule change on statelessness is genuinely groundbreaking. Nearly all EU Member States may have ratified international conventions promising to do more for the stateless, but the UK has joined the handful that have introduced actual functioning procedures.
This is not so much one step forward and two back from the Home Office as a leap in two different directions at the same time.
All of which leaves charities and human rights advocates in a curious position. For its principled stance on finding a solution for the stateless, the government should be applauded. Maybe this is incumbent most of all on those of us often at loggerheads with Ministers and their officials. There is no better case for working constructively with government than seeing progress on the ground as a result.
Yet a fair immigration and asylum system is always more than the sum of policy and practice. To put this another way: justice doesn’t much resemble justice if it is systemically closed off to those who most need it.
As ever, progress is also a map for more work. Stateless people in the UK, with such complex international protection needs and after such a long period abandoned in legal limbo, are finally being brought into immigration rules. It’s something for which Asylum Aid and others fought hard, and won. But the next fight is over preventing further incursions against legal aid, and winning back some lost ground. That fight starts now.