UNHCR, THE UN REFUGEE AGENCY, has released a new study showing that many of those who find themselves in the UK  without a nationality face major obstacles trying to navigate the country’s statelessness determination procedure, and hence experience prolonged periods in legal and personal limbo.

To better understand the situation faced by stateless people in UK, the UNHCR interviewed a selection of those who had an ongoing application or had been recently recognised as stateless. The resulting report, I am Human,’lays out the challenges they face, for example in obtaining evidence to support a statelessness leave application.

Some did not come to the UK seeking to settle here but ended up stuck in the country while trying return to their country of birth or because of administrative errors. Many experienced long periods without status – in some cases several decades – in the UK, unable to regularise their position and yet unable to leave. This can put them at risk of prolonged immigration detention.

Proving statelessness can be difficult: it requires proving a negative, and to do so the cooperation of the country of origin is often needed. This may not necessarily be forthcoming. At the same time, immigration procedures are built around the expectation that everyone is a citizen somewhere. One interviewee was told he had to be living legally in his country of origin to apply for naturalisation. With no passport, however, there was no route for him to return to in his country of origin legally to make the application. Another, who had no family in his country of birth, was told he could obtain a visa to return but must have a family member to receive him. These are just two examples of the Catch-22 situation experienced by many stateless people in the UK and beyond.

In 2013, the UK established a stateless determination procedure, enabling the stateless to apply for recognition of their status and a grant of leave to remain (normally for five years, the same as refugees). Just over 180 people have been given leave to remain as a stateless person under the procedure.

“We very much welcome the UK’s commitment to addressing statelessness”, said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR’s Representative in the UK. “This study shows the challenges many stateless people still experience in the UK when they fall through the cracks, unable to move on with their lives.”

Eleven of the 12 interviewees had made applications for statelessness leave; four had been successful; six were awaiting a decision and one was refused and is now pursuing an asylum claim.

Most interviewees said that they felt safe and protected in the UK and none had experienced significant issues accessing doctors. Still, all spoke of their frustration and distress at the length of the process and at the many limitations their lack of status involved. Many said that their experiences had led to a deterioration in mental health and concerns were raised around general awareness of the procedure, the quality of reviews, difficulties obtaining evidence, the use of detention and the overall structure of the process.

The interviewees offered three overarching recommendations as to how the procedure could be improved: a shorter application processes; the use of interviews as routine in the application process (as is the case in asylum applications); and legal aid to support the applications.

“In light of these findings we’d like the Home Office to implement policies to ensure most decisions are made within six months – a year in exceptional circumstances”, said Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor, “and ensure that all statelessness leave applicants can access adequate support and accommodation while awaiting decisions, including financial support and a right to work after six months at the latest. It’s also important to ensure those claiming to be stateless are given an opportunity to explain their case in person. Their reasons and stories are sometimes very complex and really need explaining.”

The report highlights cases like that of Adam. He arrived in the UK from Malaysia on a student visa in 2001. After finishing his degree, he was advised in 2006 by a solicitor to renounce his Malaysian citizenship and apply for a UK passport as a British Overseas Citizen. This route left him in limbo, and since then Adam has been unsuccessfully trying to re-document with the Malaysian authorities. He remains in the UK, helped by friends, and recently had his second application refused.

In 2020, UNHCR released the first public audit of the Home Office’s approach to statelessness, drawing attention to good practice as well as some concerns. To build on the audit and shed light on the experiences of stateless persons, UNHCR carried out the interviews for I am Human between December 2019 and November 2020.

UNHCR and statelessness

A stateless person is someone who is “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Simply put, this means that a stateless person is someone who does not have the nationality of any country. Based on available data, the UNHCR reported that there were 4.2 million stateless, persons including those of undetermined nationality, in 76 countries at the end of 2019. However, the number is estimated to be much higher as there is a lack of data. Without any nationality or country that recognises them as a citizen, statelessness traps millions in a legal limbo at the margins of society: many have difficulty accessing basic rights, are not allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, or even get married. Statelessness can be an intergenerational trap, with many children of stateless persons born into this life of limbo.

The UNHCR has a global mandate for the identification, prevention and reduction of statelessness, and for the international protection of stateless persons. In 2013, UNHCR called for the “total commitment of the international community to end statelessness” and developed a Global Action Plan in consultation with States, civil society and international organisations. UNHCR also launched its #iBelong campaign in 2014 which aims to end statelessness within 10 years.

Read ‘I Am Human’ here.

* Source: UNHCR, the Refugee Agency

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