LONDON (AlertNet) - The one question Nischal dreads is “Where are you from?”
“When people ask me I just can’t answer,” says the 27-year-old who has asked us to use a pseudonym to protect his identity. Nischal has no family and nowhere in the world to call home.
He is an ethnic Nepali, who was born in Bhutan and has lived most of his life in India. But none of these countries, nor any other, recognises him as a citizen.
Nischal is one of an estimated 12 million people worldwide who are stateless. With no nationality, he has none of the rights or protections most of us take for granted.
He arrived in Britain 18 months ago. He has been told to leave the country, but he has nowhere he can be returned to. He lives in a legal limbo.
With no right to work he is destitute and has been forced to rely on the charity of acquaintances. He has often gone without food and sometimes ended up spending nights alone on the streets.
“I just want a place where I can say, ‘This is where I’m from’,” Nischal told AlertNet. “I really don’t care where it is, but I want an identity saying, ‘This is who I am, and this is where I’m from’. It’s hard when people ask … all I can tell them is that I was born in Bhutan.”
Nischal is one of 37 stateless people interviewed for a major new report on statelessness in Britain which calls for the government to introduce a proper system for identifying and helping stateless people.
Nischal fled Bhutan with his mother when he was six after his father was killed during ethnic strife between the Bhutanese authorities and the country’s ethnic Nepalese population.
They settled in Darjeeling in north India, home to a large ethnic Nepalese community. Although India tolerates refugees from Bhutan, it has never given them the opportunity to regularise their status so they have no rights.
Nischal received a few years’ schooling but had to leave at 15 because of his lack of papers. He started working in a small restaurant his mother had set up and continued studying under his own steam.
But as he grew older his lack of ID became more of a problem. He came under increasing pressure from ethnic Nepalese activists in Darjeeling who were demanding a separate state of Ghorkhaland. India was also cracking down on Nepalese Maoists who were entering the country, and Nischal lived in fear of arrest.
After his mother died in 2007 life became harder. He was beaten up and threatened by activists.
“I was harassed. They were abusing me and forcing me to protest and telling me that if I didn’t they would say I was a Maoist and they would burn down the business,” he said.
Alone in the world, he decided to pay a people smuggler to get him out of the country on a fake Indian passport.
“It was a risk, but it was more of a risk to stay in Darjeeling,” he said. “They didn’t say where they would send me – just somewhere in Europe.”
His journey ended when a van dropped him in Croydon, south of London, where Britain’s immigration offices are based.
ADRIFT AND ALONE
Britain has no formal process for recognising stateless people, so Nischal applied for asylum as a refugee. His claim was rejected. Although the immigration judge who heard his appeal made a finding that Nischal was stateless he was still told to leave the country.
Unable to do so, he was left homeless and penniless.
“I had no place to go, I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any money,” he said. “Every day was a problem because I didn’t have any money and I wasn’t allowed to work.”
Desperate not to be a burden, he tried not to remain in any one place for too long.
“I really don’t want to overstay with one friend so I just go from place to place,” he added. “You get frustrated at times. I’ve had problems – sometimes I haven’t been able to sleep for days, I couldn’t eat and I got depressed.”
If he was given leave to remain, Nischal says the first thing he would do is work. He is fluent in English, and his dream is to study accountancy. Otherwise, he wants to work in a restaurant or hotel and save up to start his own business.
“All I want to do is work,” he said. “I just want to live my own life, to be a bit independent. I’m almost 28 now. I’m getting older day by day, but I can’t set any goals for the future because what’s the use of thinking about it.”
A few days ago he was finally given temporary accommodation under a proviso in Britain’s immigration act aimed at preventing destitution among failed asylum seekers who cannot leave the country.
But Nischal is still stateless, and there is still no solution in sight.
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(Editing by Alex Whiting)