“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Stateless in the Netherlands: Stuck in paradise?

23 July 2012 | Karel Hendriks, Statelessness research consultant

The Netherlands is a splendid country in many ways. Despite amusing political bickering, it’s a stable democracy. Despite the occasional judicial mishap, there’s a strong and independent legal system. Despite austerity and budget cuts, poverty is scarce and social security broad. And, contrary to popular belief, most trains run on time. In short, for most Dutch people life is a breeze – relatively speaking of course. However, entry to this paradise is notably restricted. In this case, citizenship is the key to get in.

According to the Central Bureau for Statistics, more than 2.000 stateless persons live in the Netherlands. Government offers them little to no support or opportunities, in either practical or procedural terms. Another staggering 83.000 people are of ‘unknown nationality’, referring only to those people that are actually registered with their municipality. Surely this is a curiously high figure for a state that can pinpoint with eerie precision what my income is, or how many people in the country are called Jan. But when it comes to our thousands of stateless persons, or the tens of thousands of ‘unreturnables’ for that matter, statistics are at a loss. What’s more, the human consequences of statelessness are shrouded in even more uncertainty. This blog, however fleetingly, seeks to shed some light on this.

In 2011 we interviewed 25 stateless and unreturnable persons for a UNHCR report about statelessness in the Netherlands. The diverse and mostly dispiriting stories feature a number of similarities, but one issue really stood out: the pervasive incidence of lengthy, repeated and hopeless periods of detention. Numerous respondents independently described the Kafkaesque practice of being detained for months, in a regime no different from or worse than criminal prisons and without any indication as to when they would be expelled or let go, only to be released because a judge ruled that ‘the perspective of deportation was absent’. In an especially wry display, interviewees were then given notice to leave to country within 24 hours, though how exactly they were to arrange this without travel documents or, for that matter, a nationality, remains vague.

With no means or right to either stay in or leave the country, most respondents were arrested a second or third (and in some cases even fourth and fifth) time  and then sent back to alien detention awaiting deportation. Usually, not being able to present identification documents caused the arrest in the first place. Obviously, while in custody no country offers consular protection or advocates for a stateless person’s rights. This vicious cycle, and the general sense of dehumanisation that goes along with it, has a tremendously detrimental effect on the mental state of stateless persons, who often do not dare to leave their house or shelter at all anymore: “we are going to bed fearing that they can come and arrest us at night, we are scared of any car parked under our window, of any knock on our door, we are scared of any minivan with tinted glass”, a couple from from the former Soviet Union commented.

Another problem faced by stateless people in the Netherlands pertains to the difficulties in accessing healthcare that should by law be available to all residents of the country (legal status is irrelevant!). Various interviewees have indicated that they were either refused essential care, or postponed potentially important check-ups for fear of being “discovered”. Other elemental needs, a roof over one’s head in particular, are similarly difficult to access. Various respondents are homeless, and scrape a living on the streets. For those who have found shelter, eviction poses a constant threat. To add insult to injury, a majority of respondents struggles with psychological issues, often PTSD and depression related. These mental issues are either a token of traumatic experiences in the past, or have been caused or aggravated by the disheartening judicial cul-de-sac most find themselves in. Feelings of uselessness, of worthlessness and of stupefying boredom are their greatest enemies. As one man from the rarely-recognised nation of South-Ossetia recalled: “two weeks ago I called a volunteer centre, asking them how I could help – time is all I’ve got. When I told them I do not have a nationality, they said they could not hire me, as I couldn’t be insured. I can’t even work for free”. He then added: “it would be nice to be considered a human being. After all, nobody is born with a passport”. 

Many of the interviewees complained about the lack of procedural solutions to their plight. Due to the absence of a dedicated statelessness procedure in the Netherlands, stateless persons end up ‘hopping’ from one ill-fitting (asylum) procedure to another. This is particularly pointless, since many stateless persons do not even wish to apply, or even consider themselves eligible, for asylum. Indeed, various interviewees displayed no desire whatsoever to stay in the Netherlands, either because of a longing to return home or because of profound disillusionment with life in exile. As Igor Skrijevski commented: “we are buried alive in the Netherlands, and we never wanted to be here in the first place”.

A final point: no homogeneous stateless population exists in the Netherlands, nor does it in most of Europe. This is not just a demographic trivium, but has as a consequence that the potential for collective action is severely diminished. Many other countries faced with challenges related to statelessness feature a specific and coherent group at particular risk (say, Nubians in Kenya, Crimean Tartars in Ukraine or Rohingya in Myanmar). Indeed, as Brad Blitz and Maureen Lynch already concluded, “findings from Kenya and Ukraine suggest that large stateless populations have considerable agency and may set agendas for reform”. However, the Dutch stateless population is diverse, dispersed, unorganized and thus in reality not a “population” at all. Both the action-inhibiting heterogeneity of stateless people in the Netherlands as well as the presently ill-defined policy towards them, increase the need for external pressure and advocacy. Because the way things stand now, stateless people find themselves in a paradise lost.

A detailed preparatory research report on statelessness in the Netherlands, which includes a number of case studies, can be found online here

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