“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

The lives of stateless refugees in the Netherlands

26 March 2020 | Marlotte van Dael, project coordinator & researcher at ASKV Refugee Support

Based on the article “Het lot van de staatloze vluchteling: ‘Niemand wil ons hebben’“ published in ‘Het Parool’ on 28 January 2020, written by Joset van der Hoeven. Photos by Fouad Hallak.  

What is it like to live without a nationality in the Netherlands? This depends on the individual’s residence status and registration. Let’s quickly break down the three most common groups: 

1.) Stateless individuals with a residence permit who are correctly registered as ‘stateless’ in the local Dutch Population Register. This means things have gone right. People in this group have the same rights as those legally staying in the country, and because of their ‘stateless’ registration they have the right to, most importantly, access facilitated naturalisation. There are approximately 13,000 people in this category.

2.) Stateless individuals with a residence permit who are not registered as ‘stateless’. Instead, they are registered as ‘nationality unknown’. The biggest issue for this group is access to a nationality through naturalisation, because they are not, as those in the first group, exempt from a requirement to produce a passport to complete the process. Other issues include travel and passing on unknown nationality onto their children. There are approximately 43,000 people in this category.

3.) Stateless individuals wihtout a residence permit. Their statelessness is either ‘found credible’ by the Dutch immigration services, or isn’t, in which case they are often recorded as having ‘unknown nationality’. They are not officially registered in the Dutch Population Register. This group is by far the most marginalised. They are not allowed to be in the country (and have no right to work, to rent, to health insurance, etc) but are also unable to travel anywhere else. Because there is no dedicated statelessness determination procedure, no one knows how many individuals there are in this category.

Ibrahim and Abdullah fall into this last group. They have no residence permit and while Ibrahim’s statelessness is found credible, Abdullah’s is not. On a regular Wednesday morning in January they speak about their experiences in the Netherlands.

“I came here to have a life”

"What if my medication runs out?" Ibrahim asks. “Things were better organized at the AZC (camp for asylum seekers), where I could do a check every day. I have a lot of headaches from the stress, what can I do?”

Ibrahim (53) is a stateless Palestinian. He’s a diabetic. After his asylum got rejected he ended up on the streets. He now shares a room with his brother, who is in the same situation, in one of ASKV’s houses. Despite not having medical insurance, his essential medical care can continue in Amsterdam.

"Besides praying, I have nothing to do," says Ibrahim. “Going outside is difficult. Everything costs money, even the tram. I don't want to do irregular work, I respect the Dutch law. I want to get to know the Netherlands, learn the language and integrate, but that is not possible in my situation.”

Ibrahim was born in Egypt and moved to Dubai in the 1980s. He worked as a driver on a school bus. In 2015 his temporary residence permit in the UAE ended and so did all his rights in the country. Forced to leave, he ended up in the Netherlands.

“My family has been living as refugees since 1948. Because we never had papers, we were always afraid of the police. I expected my story to be heard in the Netherlands, because it is a humane country, but nobody wants us.”

Ibrahim’s wife, son (21) and daughter (19) are still in Dubai and were supposed to join Ibrahim later.

“I ended up in the Netherlands and planned to bring my family here as soon as possible. But because I come from a safe country, I don't get asylum here.”

Ibrahim shows a letter from the Repatriation and Departure Service: a summary of the efforts they have made to send him back to Egypt, the Emirates and Palestine. All embassies refuse to provide him with travel documents.

“I want to go back to Dubai, to Egypt or Palestine… I even want to go to hell, as they say in Arabic if you are really desperate. I didn't come here to go on a vacation, but to have a life.”

“I even secretly think about a future”

Abdullah (38) is Rohingya and was born in Myanmar. He has no documents whatsoever and his ‘identification document for Dutch asylum seekers’ states ‘nationality unknown’.

"I was born stateless," says Abdullah. “As a Rohingya you are not recognized in your own country. Our village was guarded by soldiers and you were not allowed to leave. You could play in the garden and maybe go to the market, but we were not welcome in many other places. I never went to school. In the Netherlands I sometimes live in just as much fear. Here I am afraid of the police as well. Life in illegality is difficult."

Abdullah arrived to the Netherlands 15 years ago. The Dutch Immigration Office did not believe he was born in Myanmar and that he is Rohingya. A life of irregularity followed.

“I lost all hope just over a year ago. I had myself arrested, so that I was placed in immigration detention. I was just happy to be there: finally a roof over my head! No more stress about getting food and I could take a shower whenever I wanted. They released me after four months. I was sad – could I really not stay? I was able to postpone my departure for three hours by lingering.”

Unable to prove his statelessness because of the absence of a dedicated statelessness determination procedure, the Repatriation and Departure Service has tried to send Abdullah back to Myanmar and Bangladesh. But without any papers he was not accepted by either country as a national.

Despite his situation, Abdullah is happy that he finally has a place to stay in the shelter for undocumented refugees of the Municipality of Amsterdam and he is eager to learn and start a career.

“I even secretly think about a future - a difficult word for someone who is stateless. I then think about training as a computer programmer. Unfortunately, this place is also temporary. My newfound strength will be gone immediately when I’m back on the streets again.”

A petition by UNHCR, the Institute on Statelessness & Inclusion, and ASKV to urge the Dutch government to help stateless persons in the Netherlands is currently still open for signatures. The petition will be handed to the Dutch government, which has delayed the introduction of a Statelessness Determination Procedure since 2016.

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