Still stateless, still suffering: It’s time for European leaders to take action

Life without a nationality means life in limbo. Statelessness is a man-made phenomenon which afflicts millions across the globe. It demands international attention.

Chris Nash
29 August 2014

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have no nationality, or for that matter, how people can end up becoming stateless in the first place? Later this month the European Network on Statelessness (ENS), a civil society alliance with 53 member organisations in over 30 countries, will publish testimonies from stateless people across Europe. These will support a campaign calling on governments to improve the way they treat those who quite simply have no other country they can return to, and who often find themselves sentenced to a lifetime in limbo. A few of these stories are already available.

No functioning protection framework

When hearing about how people become and remain stateless in Europe, the surprising thing is that most European states have ratified relevant international instruments aimed at addressing this problem, such as the 1954 UN Statelessness Convention. But unfortunately, they have done little or nothing to implement their obligations in practice. In fact, only a handful of European states have in place functioning statelessness determination procedures, a basic prerequisite for officials to even be able to identify, let alone help, any stateless persons on their territory. It’s a bit like if State parties to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention had decided they didn’t actually need asylum procedures to recognise who is deserving of refugee protection.

As reported on openDemocracy, in April last year the United Kingdom joined the small but growing club of countries to put in place a dedicated statelessness determination procedure. It’s now time to shift attention to other European neighbours yet to take this step, which would also offer a policy solution for at least some of the unreturnable migrants on a state’s territory. Administratively, this is relatively easy to do, and ENS recently published a good practice guide on statelessness determination, intended as a tool for states considering this.

One reason sometimes cited by states for failing to implement proper procedures is the fear of creating a pull factor. However, this fear would appear to be unfounded. In those few European countries with well-established procedures (France, Hungary, Italy and Spain) the number of applications has remained manageable and generally consistent year on year.

Falling between the cracks - lives in limbo

But what happens when a country lacks such a protection mechanism? Take the example of Andrej who spent several years in limbo after Lithuania revoked his citizenship while he was residing in Ireland. Or Luka, who has lived in Slovakia for over 20 years. His partner is a Slovak national, as is their eight-year old son, but officially, Luka is not recognised as the child’s father on his son’s birth certificate. Luka’s existence is not recognized by the Slovakian state (although he has been fined multiple times for his “illegal stay” and was once held for 14 months in a detention center). He cannot work legally or get health insurance or move his life forward.

The other accounts obtained by ENS paint a similar picture. Isa has lived without a nationality in Serbia for over 15 years since fleeing the conflict in Kosovo in 1999. Yet he remains unregularised which means he cannot get married, work legally, or travel outside the country. He describes living without documents or a state “as if you never existed in this world” and feels that others see him “as a criminal”. Similarly, Sarah, who is stuck in legal limbo in the Netherlands, explains: “I live day by day, not knowing what the future will bring.” She fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a child, but when the Netherlands unsuccessfully attempted deportation (after refusing her asylum claim) it became apparent that she was stateless. Because the Netherlands currently has no procedure to recognize or regularise stateless persons, Sarah has no solution in sight. In a cruel twist, the fact that she has no identity documents also prevents her from obtaining a so called ‘no fault’ temporary residence permit for migrants who cannot be removed for reasons beyond their control.

Other individuals interviewed by ENS in Belgium, France, Italy, Macedonia, Poland and Romania all describe the same story of frustration at being stuck in limbo, unable to access healthcare, education and employment. Or to do the basic things that most of us take for granted – like get married, open a bank account or apply for a driving license. Their predicament boils down to the simple fact that no country accepts them as a citizen. Research by the UN Refugee Agency in Belgium and the Netherlands confirms that many stateless migrants find themselves destitute or at risk of long term immigration detention despite there being no prospect of removal. Few are in a position to break this cycle, which is prone to continue indefinitely unless states intervene and take responsibility by providing a regularisation route and an opportunity for them to re-build their lives.

Signs of progress towards eradicating statelessness

The stories of Andrej, Luka, Isa, Sarah, and others have been gathered as part of a civil society campaign to protect stateless persons in Europe. Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Statelessness Convention, this will culminate with a coordinated day of action on 14th October 2014. Supported by an online petition, available in nine languages, it calls on Europe’s leaders to take action. The petition, like the individual testimonies that ENS has gathered, is intended to give a voice to stateless persons and to remove at least a little of their invisibility.

There are some helpful signs that this issue is starting to get the attention it deserves. In the short time since a High Level Ministerial meeting in Geneva in December 2011, 18 states have acceded to either or both the UN Statelessness Conventions. That’s more than in the previous two decades. In October 2012, the European Union pledged that all those Member States yet to do so (Estonia, Cyprus, Malta and Poland) would accede to the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

This is mirrored by an increasing interest among civil society, as evidenced by the rapid growth of ENS, which has attracted 53 member organisations within the space of just two years since it was launched. Next month sees the Hague host the first ever Global Forum on Statelessness which will bring together more than 200 delegates to focus on the issue.

Later this year the UN Refugee Agency, whose mandate covers both stateless persons and refugees, will launch an ambitious 10-year campaign seeking to eradicate statelessness by 2024. This campaign seeks greater political commitment to resolving protracted situations of statelessness and to preventing new situations of mass statelessness caused by state succession or arbitrary deprivation of nationality.

There are many good reasons for the international community to get behind this campaign. The individual insecurity experienced by stateless persons becomes a communal, national or even international issue when it escalates into collective insecurity of a large stateless group. There is a well-established link between statelessness and mass displacement - examples include the Bidoons from Kuwait and the Rohingyas from Myanmar. This reinforces the fact that statelessness is not only a pervasive issue, but also one that demands international attention. Returning full circle, it is hoped that focussing greater attention on the plight of stateless persons stranded in European countries may in turn encourage the European Union to play a more dynamic role in tackling statelessness through its external relations policy, including in places such as the Dominican Republic which has recently witnessed the denationalisation of its citizens of Haitian descent on a truly alarming scale. Such developments serve as a sobering reminder of some of the political challenges inherent in eradicating statelessness.

Only time will tell, but it is perhaps no longer quite so fanciful to believe that there may be an end in sight for a very much a man-made phenomenon which afflicts millions across the globe.

A short animation illustrating Sarah’s story is available here and you can sign the ENS petition here. ENS will publish its collection of stateless stories later this month.



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