“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Dutch municipalities take matters into their own hands while national government fails to provide solution for stateless people in the Netherlands

16 October 2019 | Marlotte van Dael (Project coordinator & Researcher at ASKV Refugee Support) & Rene Rouwette (Executive Director at Kompass)
Utrecht Town Hall

After years of advocacy efforts by civil society and UNHCR to persuade the Dutch government to improve its protection of stateless people, the Government published a first draft of a legislative proposal for a statelessness determination procedure in 2016. While UNHCR, government advisory bodies, and non-governmental organizations welcomed the initiative, they were critical of specific provisions in the legislative proposal. A new draft proposal is now long overdue for discussion in Parliament.

In the meantime, stateless people with a residence permit rely on the municipality to have their statelessness status determined. Dutch municipal rules set high evidential thresholds and are stricter than legally required. The burden of proof lies solely on the stateless applicant and they need to prove to the municipality with documents that they are stateless and not a registered citizen of any particular country. While waiting for the new statelessness determination law, which could provide a solution, municipalities are even more careful than in the past and experience difficult collaboration with national authorities.

Due to the absence of a statelessness determination procedure and the problems at the local level, many people, including children, are registered as ‘nationality unknown’ rather than stateless. It is a bureaucratic difference that is hard to explain to an outsider, but has a drastic impact on the lives of many people. People experience difficulties when travelling, getting married, and most importantly when they wish to naturalise. The status of ‘nationality unknown’ is therefore also transferred to their children, leaving them to grow up without a nationality. New data obtained from the Central Office for Statistics shows that in January 2019 there were 12,869 stateless people (1440 children aged 0-14 years) and 42,752 people with ‘nationality unknown’ (including 6303 children) registered in the Netherlands.

Municipalities take action to facilitate local procedures for the registration of stateless people

Recently, a group of bigger cities in the Netherlands have acknowledged the seriousness of the issue. Pushed by our coalition of civil society organisations, lawyers, and academic experts, as well as local politicians and media outlets, the municipalities have now started taking action to resolve statelessness cases. At this moment, the cities are assessing:

1) on what basis are people assigned ‘nationality unknown’ rather than ‘stateless’ status;
2) what they can do to help stateless people obtain necessary proof;
3) how they can be more lenient within the limits of the current Dutch law.

Special attention is given to the situation of children born in the municipality. The city of Utrecht is advocating for a committee of independent experts to design an improved executive procedure, with nine (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag, Eindhoven, Groningen, Tilburg, Almere, Breda and Nijmegen) biggest Dutch municipalities showing interest to team up or join in. With the help of this procedure, a larger group of stateless people with residency can hopefully make use of having a ‘stateless’ registration in the local registry, including facilitated naturalization.

While first results of this process are very encouraging, these steps are also not enough. Every day stateless people without a residence permit suffer from their irregular status; not having the right to work, to have insurance, or access to other services. They are stuck in limbo and often find themselves destitute with no clear solution in sight. They are also at risk of arbitrary detention, despite the lack of any real prospect that they could be ‘successfully’ returned to another country. The Dutch government currently has little to no consideration for their special circumstances.

The problem of stateless people without residency cannot be solved at the local level. Municipalities are not allowed to register these individuals, let alone assign them the right of legal residence. Yet, with cities now recognizing the issue, this has increased the pressure on the Dutch national government to act. In accordance with international law, and the recent Human Rights Committee recommendations, the Government has an important responsibility to help stateless individuals  who are stuck in the Dutch system.

Photo: Utrecht Town Hall

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