“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

With each person left living on the streets, we are losing as a society

17 April 2020 | Petr Baroch, Lawyer at the Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU)

Rarely have dry articles overloaded with data and legal definitions pushed forward any human rights agenda. That is why I am opening this blog with my personal viewpoint, leaving more general points for later. The issue of statelessness is above all a question of concrete human lives left at, or even intentionally pushed aside to, the margins of society. An issue of people forgotten by the socio-economic system; people left alone in a vacuum from which their voices are not heard, no matter how loudly they are crying for help. Social workers, lawyers, and others involved are not driven by figures and statistics; they find motivation in the faces of the people they meet.

An article introduced by a reference to the Czech Republic signing the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (2004) is therefore bound to immediately discourage everyone, including me, from reading any further. Any conversation or debate about statelessness typically starts by explaining what the term stateless actually means, i.e. what and, most importantly, who is going to be discussed. That alone shows what a complicated, hard to grasp topic we are dealing with, one still unfamiliar not only to the public but also to political representatives. We tend to see citizenship as something that is granted to us, a fundamental relationship between the state and a natural person. And it is precisely this presumption which makes one bemused that there are people for whom this kind of bond never existed or was at some point broken. And the surprise is even bigger when one learns about how tragic the consequences of the loss of this bond can be.

Mr. Petrii comes from the former Soviet Union. He was born in a labour camp in Siberia and subsequently lived with his family in today’s Ukraine. Because he was born in a gulag, there is no record of his origin anywhere. He came to the Czech Republic more than fifteen years ago, but once his Soviet passport expired, he was neither able to leave the country nor to get a new passport, as none of the post-Soviet states recognised him as their citizen. Since then he has lived in a legal vacuum, with no identification document, no chance to get a job or accommodation, no access to medical care. He has faced expulsion proceedings several times. Whenever identified by the police, he found himself in danger of immediate arrest. This happened repeatedly over the years as Mr. Petrii’s life moved between detention centres and living on the streets.

In 2017 he encountered employees of my organisation, who identified him as a stateless person and submitted with him one of the very first status determination applications in accordance with the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. These applications, up until then “unexamined,” are not provided for by the Czech law in any way, with the exception of one provision which leaves the responsibility for the request upon the Ministry of the Interior. The Czech Republic has still no procedure for people applying for a stateless status, mainly because from the start, legislators have relied upon the use of analogy with applications for international protection (see the country profile on the Statelessness Index for more information).

In Mr. Petrii’s case, as well as in the case of other applicants, however, the Czech Ministry of the Interior refused to employ the above-mentioned analogy, or to perform any other action whatsoever. Despite repeated letters and requests, Mr. Petrii waited for the Ministry of the Interior’s response for over two years, which in his case meant two more years of homelessness and despair, and thus an infringement of his human rights and damage to his health.

In the end it was not legal tools that finally moved the authorities to action, but rather an activist approach: creating constant pressure through complaints, open letters to the director of the Department for Asylum and Migration Policy, media coverage, and even direct involvement of the applicants. Any legal action, any letter to a state authority, any written request is always a depersonalised derivative of basic facts, a substitute for an actual face-to-face encounter. The years-long inaction was naturally the most frustrating for the applicants themselves, for whom the application represented a hope of escaping the prison of statelessness and a return into society. That hope was, however, fading away with each week of inactivity, replaced again by frustration and, in several cases, suicidal thoughts.

Thanks to persistent pressure and exploring both legal and non-legal paths, statelessness is currently being discussed more often, by state officials as well as among NGOs focused on migration. The Ombudsman and UNHCR have both issued several statements on the bleak situation of affected individuals, in which they urge the Ministry of the Interior to proceed in compliance with the Asylum Act. The Supreme Administrative Court has also delivered several key judgements, prohibiting detention of stateless people and clearly stating that until there is a decisive procedure established for stateless applicants, they are to be seen as applicants for international protection, which gives them access to the public health insurance system, the possibility to get a job or to apply for an identification document, but most importantly, legal residence in the country.

The Ministry of the Interior refuses to fully respect the practice of the courts, and moreover has proposed an amendment to the Act on the Residence of Foreign Nationals that potentially jeopardises the fundamental rights of stateless people, but otherwise we can indeed observe first steps in the right direction.

After more than two years since the submission of his application, Mr. Petrii received a positive decision and is now officially recognised as a stateless person. He no longer has to fear detention, and what is more, after over fifteen years, he finally has legal residence in the country. For Mr. Petrii, however, considering his age and the hardship he has been through, this is hardly a final victory. For many rights we tend to see as a given, he will most likely have to fight until the end of his life. There are hundreds of people like Mr. Petrii in the Czech Republic, but since they live on the margins without any documentation, their existence can easily go unnoticed.

The depersonalisation of concrete problems is always dangerous, as it is easier to reject an action, or put aside an article or a letter, than to turn one’s back on an actual person asking for help. We like to think that human progress is measured by the progress of technology and science; it is even reflected in the way we name historical periods. Human progress is, however, determined by how much value we put on a life of a person on the margins without privileges. That is why with each person we leave living on the streets, we are losing as a society.

Photo credit: Prague at sunrise, Sebastien on Unsplash

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