Guest post by Russell Hargrave. Russell is the Communications and Public Affairs Officer for Asylum Aid.
For too long, the situation facing stateless people in the UK has been little understood. In light of this, Asylum Aid and the UN Refugee Agency last week published our joint research report Mapping Statelessness in the United Kingdom. The report is the most comprehensive research ever produced on this issue in the UK, and attempts to map the number and profile of stateless people in the UK, and to examine legal routes available to resolving their plight.
Someone is stateless when they are not considered a national of any state under the operation of its law. In practice, this means no state is committed to looking after your welfare or protecting your interests. No foreign embassy has an obligation to extend help. For stateless people across the world, the results can be devastating.
The UK is one of a select group of 39 states signed up to both the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Despite this commitment, though, our research found that some stateless people in the UK live at daily risk of human rights infringements.
Human Rights Watch and others have documented the persecution of ethnic Nepalese by the Bhutan Government, including the discriminatory denial and deprivation of citizenship. These laws have rendered thousands of people stateless, and Nischal has never possessed any passport or identity card. After years living a precarious, undocumented existence in India, and then after problems experienced because he refused to participate in political protests, Nischal fled to the UK.
His story has been outlined elsewhere – but the Government’s uncertainty when confronted by the fact of Nischal’s statelessness neatly illustrates the need for a dedicated procedure that identifies and assists stateless people on UK territory.
When the UK Border Agency refused his asylum claim, they argued that Nischal didn’t need refugee protection and could return to India as his country of habitual residence. The Tribunal which heard his appeal also found that he was not entitled to asylum, although Mapping Statelessness identifies that the Tribunal’s failure to consider Bhutan as the country of habitual residence was an error which may have denied Nischal refugee protection to which he was entitled.
Nonetheless, the Tribunal concluded unequivocally: “The Appellant is stateless and the matter is remitted to the [Home Office] for consideration”. It also found that Nischal had no right to reside in India, and no realistic chance of obtaining this right. Although Nischal’s application for asylum had been unsuccessful, questions clearly still needed to be answered.
But no answer came. Instead, one month after the appeal, the Border Agency wrote to explain only that Nischal no longer qualified for the accommodation and support linked to his asylum application. His statelessness was ignored, and Nischal was again told to leave the UK.
In some ways, this is hardly surprising. With no dedicated system for determining whether someone is stateless, and no provision that that would regularise Nishal’s immigration status on the basis that he is stateless, the Government was ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the Tribunal’s findings.
For Nischal, however, this failure was disastrous. Unable to leave the country, and without status in the UK, he was left homeless and destitute. Basic support and accommodation was finally reinstated last month – but he was not been granted Leave to Remain. Over a year after the judge’s findings, Nischal’s status in the UK is still unresolved. He remains in legal limbo.
Nischal is not alone. Mapping Statelessness found that many stateless people live at constant risk of human rights infringements. Stateless people in legal limbo can find themselves destitute and homeless, and can face arbitrary immigration detention and prolonged separation from spouses and children.
It needn’t be like this. Our research found that, even in the recent past, the UK has had a workable and humane policy on statelessness. Between 1998 and 2002, stateless people with nowhere else to go were granted indefinite leave to remain in line with that granted to refugees at the time. However, that policy was quietly dropped, and no alternative was introduced in its place.
The publication of Mapping Statelessness marks one step towards introducing the issue of statelessness to a much wider audience. It will be accompanied by work with civil society to better identify and assist the stateless people who seek help from us, and by advocacy efforts with the Home Office to make our recommendations into a reality.
Among many goals, we will be pushing for the adoption of a statelessness determination procedure, which could do so much to prevent the human rights of stateless people in the UK being infringed. We will be pressing for better collection of official data on statelessness, so that any policy solutions are based on the strongest possible evidence. And we will be arguing to ensure Legal Aid is available to stateless people who want to have their status recognised, and who can’t afford a lawyer (complementing Asylum Aid’s ongoing lobbying to protect access to Legal Aid for anyone who needs protection).
Mapping Statelessness is, hopefully, the start of a much-needed conversation about statelessness in the UK – and one that concludes in a lasting and fair solution for those devastated by its effects.