Nischal is instantly likeable. Warm, intelligent and thoughtful, he and I first met in London last year when I interviewed him for joint research conducted by Asylum Aid and the UN Refugee Agency. The research Mapping Statelessness in the United Kingdom, is the most extensive examination to date of the plight facing stateless people in the UK.
Nischal’s story provides a striking example of how and why someone might be stateless – but it also neatly illustrates the uncertainties and contradictions that confront stateless people on their journey through the UK immigration system.
Talking with sadness but without self-pity, Nischal told me about his childhood growing up in Bhutan in the 1990s. As an ethnic Nepali, he was not entitled to Bhutanese citizenship or any of the basic rights that came with it (Human Rights Watch and others have documented the persecution of ethnic Nepalese by the Bhutan Government, including the systematic denial of citizenship). He has never possessed a passport or identity documents.
When his father was killed, Nischal’s mother left with him across the porous border into India. Mother and son lived a precarious, undocumented existence there, broadly tolerated by the Indian government but without residency rights. All attempts to regularise the family’s status in India failed. Nischal’s situation was even more unstable after his mother’s death, and it became downright dangerous when he refused to participate in protests organised by Nepalese activists. Beaten up and targeted for further violence, Nischal fled and arrived in the UK in 2010.
He is stateless. Someone is defined as stateless when they are not considered a national of any state under the operation of its law. In practice, this means that no national government is committed to looking after your welfare, and no overseas embassy will provide you with help. A photography exhibition of stateless people around the world, recently hosted in London by the UN Refugee Agency, refers to ‘nowhere people’. It is not by chance that one of the words most regularly associated with the stateless is ‘hidden’.
At present, there is no dedicated system or procedure in the UK for identifying stateless people and resolving their plight. Asylum Aid spoke with dozens of stateless people who had also fallen into the legal limbo - created when someone has no right to reside in the UK but no other country of residence or nationality to which they can return.
The individual cost can be catastrophic. We met with stateless people who were homeless and had been forced to live on the streets, and people who had found shelter only in bus stations and public libraries. We met with people separated from their families for years on end, including one father who hadn’t seen his children for more than a decade. We met with people who had been detained in immigration removal centres for months at a time, and left to languish in spite of evidence that there was no country of nationality or residence to which they could be returned - a situation described in detail by Amal de Chikera in an article on openDemocracy How to protect invisible people. Our conversations with stateless people returned time and again to the same themes – of exhaustion, of regret towards the past, of fear and foreboding about the future. “I see myself as a bird with nowhere to rest on the ground,” reflected one man brought up with no nationality in a refugee camp in Lebanon, “but which can’t spend his whole life in the sky”.
Nischal’s case demonstrates the need for a robust, accessible procedure that will identify and find solutions for stateless people. When Nischal arrived in the UK, he claimed asylum. The Home Office and a subsequent appeal judge agreed that he didn’t qualify as a refugee. But where the Home Office argued that Nischal could return to India, the judge recognised that he had no right to do so and instead concluded unequivocally that “the Appellant is stateless”. He referred the case back to the Home Office for reconsideration.
But no reconsideration ever took place. This isn’t really surprising: the government currently has no mechanism for doing so. Instead, Nischal was simply sent a letter one month later explaining that his asylum appeal had failed and that his right to housing and support was being withdrawn. This was the situation when I met him. His statelessness had largely been ignored, he had been told to return to India (fruitlessly, as this was a country in which he had never enjoyed any right to reside), and he had been left destitute and homeless in the UK.
As these stories demonstrate, statelessness in the UK poses a humanitarian challenge to the Home Office. But it is also a managerial problem to solve.
Weaknesses in official statistics make accurate numbers hard to come by. Nonetheless, the majority of the stateless people identified in Mapping Statelessness – between 1,000 and 4,000 each year – travel in and out of the UK without posing any pressing challenge to immigration control. They travel on specially-issued travel documents, hold valid visas, or have been granted Leave to Enter on arrival. Their right to come and go has been recognised, and it appears that they cross in and out of the UK unhindered.
However, the report also identified a relatively small population of people who are recognised as stateless, who don’t qualify as refugees, and for whom any removal attempts have failed. This group appears to grow at a rate of between fifty and one hundred people each year – and even if this is at the low end of estimates for the likely size of the stateless population in the UK, we know that this is where stateless people are at risk of becoming homeless and destitute, and vulnerable to prolonged, futile periods in immigration detention. This is where the work can begin.
A robust statelessness determination procedure should help identify stateless people as early as possible. This is a way for the government to step in before stateless people fall into legal limbo. If appropriate, and if there is nowhere else for them to go, they should be granted leave to remain in the UK, and the chance to start rebuilding their lives.
But a procedure would also aid immigration controls. Where it helps identify for someone stateless a right of nationality or residence in another country – and always provided that their human rights are never compromised – the Home Office could then assist onward travel to those countries in safety and dignity. At the same time, this could help relieve pressure on an already over-stretched asylum system, to which many stateless people must currently turn.
Dialogue with ministers and officials continues. In the meantime, Nischal’s patience is remarkable. He has finally been given housing by the Home Office while his application to stay in the country is decided. He no longer has to beg for places to sleep on friends’ floors, but there is still no decision on his future.
“My biggest worry is staying like this, doing nothing,” he concedes sadly. “Each morning I wake up it’s the same thing, the same question about what will I do that day”. And those days still stretch on and on ahead of him.