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European leaders urged to end plight of 600,000 stateless people

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 28 May 2014 02:00 GMT
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A Roma woman holds her child to warm up near a gas stove in her shelter at an illegal camp on the bank of the Var river in Nice, southeastern France, on Nov. 6, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Europe’s leaders must take action to end the plight of some 600,000 stateless people who are stuck in a nightmarish legal limbo within its borders, campaigners said on Wednesday as they launched a petition calling for governments to consign statelessness to the history books.

A stateless person is someone who is not recognised as a citizen by any country and consequently denied the basic rights most people take for granted. They have little or no access to education, healthcare, formal jobs and accommodation. They cannot travel overseas, buy property, open a bank account, get a driving license or even marry. In many cases their children will inherit their statelessness.

As a result, many live in destitution, separated from loved ones and vulnerable to exploitation and detention.

“It’s often said that stateless people lack the right to have rights,” said Chris Nash, coordinator of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS), which is launching the petition as part of a wider campaign. “We need to bring Europe’s legal ghosts out of the shadows and ensure that stateless people are treated with respect and dignity.”

ENS, which brings together charities, lawyers and academics in 30 countries, is calling for every European country to set up a system for recognising stateless people and granting them a legal residence status similar to that enjoyed by refugees. This would allow them to access basic services so they can rebuild their lives.

Large-scale statelessness first emerged in Europe after World War II. Nobel laureates Albert Einstein and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were both stateless for a while. But Nash said the problem remains hidden and little understood.

“I’ve met many stateless people and what strikes you is their desperate desire to have an identity and to be able to undertake daily life in the way most us take for granted,” Nash said. “Some stateless people find themselves in particularly acute situations because they are destitute and face a daily struggle to exist.”

"I'M NOT A CRIMINAL"

The ENS campaign, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 1954 U.N. Statelessness Convention, highlights the stories of a handful of stateless people like Isa, who lives in Serbia after fleeing Kosovo during the 1999 conflict. Lack of an ID card has left him living in constant fear.

“People surely see me in a different way because of it. They think I do not exist or that I am a criminal,” he said.

The biggest stateless populations in Europe are hangovers from the breakup of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Another significant population is the Roma who are scattered throughout Europe but are frequently denied citizenship by the country they live in.

Many other stateless people are migrants from outside Europe who, through no fault of their own, are not recognised by the country they call home. With no documents they often end up sleeping rough or in detention centres.

The petition calls on European leaders to: 

  • Ratify the 1954 U.N. convention, which obliges signatories to protect and support stateless people in their territory
  • Set up a mechanism to help stateless people legalise their presence

Britain, Georgia and Moldova are among a handful of European countries that have recently set up stateless determination procedures, but the vast majority of states still lack such mechanisms.

Campaigners say stateless people often end up in detention even though there is no country they can be deported to.

Rashid, whose story is also highlighted in the campaign, was born in Myanmar and fled to Bangladesh with his mother after his father, a Muslim rights activist, was killed and his sister arrested. He now lives in the Netherlands.

“I cannot go anywhere,” said Rashid, a member of the ethnic Rohingya population who are not recognised in Myanmar where they face persecution. “I cannot go back to Myanmar because my nationality has been withdrawn. I am asking for help in the Netherlands and as a result I am being kept in detention with criminals. I have not done anything wrong, I am not a criminal.”

To find out more about statelessness in Europe click on this short animation by ENS: Everyone has the right to a nationality!

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