“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

On the Road Again! Raising Awareness on Statelessness in the UK

13 June 2012 | Amal de Chickera

Stateless persons are amongst the most vulnerable in the world today. The widely quoted figures state that there are more than 12 million stateless persons worldwide with over 600,000 in Europe. There is less certainty about the population in the UK, though recent research sheds some light on the extent of the population and examines the current treatment of stateless persons in the country. 

Most individuals and organisations working with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees would inevitably come into contact with stateless persons. In the UK, this will often happen in the context of detention, where stateless persons and those who cannot be removed from the country for practical reasons (a group referred to as ‘de facto stateless persons’ and ‘unreturnable persons’) are indefinitely held despite knowledge on all sides that they are playing out a very costly farce (costly to the state in terms of wasted money and much more costly to the individual in terms of a wasted life).

"Whisper" by "M." Courtesy of Detention ActionThis painting by a former Palestinian detainee captures in ways that words cannot, the human impact of unnecessary and illegal detention. These persons need protection, and that need is heightened when it is the state that is the discriminator, violator and abuser. Understanding how to identify them and which challenges they are likely to face, is a first step towards protecting them from human rights abuse, and civil society organisations have a large role to play in this regard.

It is with the objective of engaging with such organisations and individuals, that the Equal Rights Trust, Asylum Aid and Detention Action – three organisations that all have expertise on the issue, albeit from slightly different perspectives - devised and have delivered a series of workshops on statelessness in the United Kingdom.

The first workshop was delivered at the Barrow Cadbury Trust Offices in London in January 2012. This was followed by workshops at the Welsh Refugee Council in Cardiff in April and at the Scottish Refugee Council in May 2012. A fourth Workshop will be held in Birmingham on 27 June 2012.

Organising and conducting these workshops has been a rewarding experience. We were initially a little unsure as to how well the workshops would be received and how much interest there would be on what is admittedly a peripheral issue for most. Perhaps partly because of this, we have been overwhelmed with the positive and enthusiastic feedback we have received from participants – who typically have been a good mix of lawyers, academics, activists, social workers and other members of civil society. The message is loud and clear: people are interested in the issue and want to learn more about it. Most importantly, they want to be provided the tools that will enable them to provide better services to their stateless clients.

As with all difficult questions though, there is no easy answer. The UK does not have a discrete protection mechanism in place to cater to the needs of stateless persons. Very few countries in Europe or throughout the world do.

This is the frustration that most of us working in the field of statelessness face. That despite our best intentions, there is little or no practical framework within which we can push for greater protection for stateless persons. It’s as if the stateless have fallen between the margins. Indeed, the problem of statelessness is characterised by the fact that those who cannot depend on national human rights protection mechanisms, are quick to find out that international protection mechanisms are often too far away and too intangible to meet their urgent needs.

The Human Rights Safety Net © Gihan de ChickeraThis illustration demonstrates that the human rights safety net tends to work better for those who have an effective nationality, than those who do not. It therefore hints at a fundamental failure of international human rights law to protect its most vulnerable subjects, and in doing so, it emphasises the urgent need to mend the safety net and protect those with no nationality.

What the statelessness awareness raising workshop has taught its designers and facilitators is that it is important to engage with civil society actors on the issue of statelessness and generate interest and raise awareness in this regard. In fact, it is important to replicate the process throughout the UK and in Europe as well. But it is equally important to push for greater protection of stateless persons, who continue to suffer the indignity of human rights abuse due to nothing other than the indifference of states to their hopeless situation.

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