“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

The silent truth about stateless people in Poland

19 September 2019 | Katarzyna Przybysławska, Director of the Halina Niec Legal Aid Center
Launch of the Mapping Report

In Poland, statelessness is a small problem. So small in fact, that it's easy to ignore. Government sources provide diverging statistics on the number of stateless people, varying from some 1,300 to over 8,000. Statistically speaking the number is almost insignificant in a country of 38 million. Perhaps it is becasue of this, that statelessness has never gained enough importance to become a topic of interest to the government, media or even NGOs.

Mapping Statelessness in Poland

Still, stateless people exist. They live their silent, invisible lives in a country that does not notice them, let alone answer their needs. Although Poland is party to some relevant human rights instruments, it has not acceded to any of the core statelessness conventions. It does not have a dedicated statelessness determination procedure to help stateless people regularise their status. Instead statelessness often coincides with irregular stay, lengthy identification procedures and futile return procedures, which inevitably lead to unnecessarily long detention. In the eyes of the Polish authorities being stateless often means not cooperating with the identification process and trying to disrupt the removal from the country.

As a result stateless people without legal residence in Poland are faced with extremely limited options, with only two types of status on offer: rudimentary protection afforded through the so called “tolerated status” and – under some additional conditions –“humanitarian stay”. To make matters worse, the only way to receive it, is to go through the return process. So for stateless people without legal status it is an “all for nothing” kind of game.

On the surface statelessness seems easy to understand: being stateless means not being recognized as a citizen by any state. But the reality is much more complicated because in legal terms, identifying someone as stateless boils down to proving a negative, which often turns out to be an almost impossible task (you can find out more about the issues in the new “Mapping Statelessness in Poland” report by HNLAC and UNHCR due to be published on Refworld website).

So how do you end up stateless in Poland?

There is no one scenario, although statistics show that stateless people in Poland come mostly from the former Soviet countries, with the remaining cases representing a broad spectrum of countries of origin. In very rare cases stateless individuals are born on the Polish territory, although some claim to have Polish roots. Addressing their lack of nationality, some people try to regularize their status using the protection procedure, others attempt to obtain a regular migration permit, while those without valid documents at hand, may choose to stay under the radar and try to make a living without any papers at all.

We met Manjeet in one of the guarded centers in Poland, where our lawyers regularly provide free advice to asylum seekers. Due to scarcity of funding available to refugee assisting NGOs and the government’s anti-immigrant stance, free legal aid is a scarce commodity these days and during every visit, the number of people trying to talk to us is overwhelming. Manjeet came asking about his prolonged detention. When we first talked to him, he had already spent several months locked up and was desperately looking for a way to stop his removal to India which was determined to be his country of origin (even though he never admitted it was). In 2016 he was issued with a return order. As he feared imminent deportation, he applied for international protection, but was denied. Nevertheless, he kept trying. Altogether he reapplied four times and failed - his applications were deemed manifestly unfounded.

In April 2018 a court ordered his detention, due to Manjeet’s non-compliance with the return order. The Border Guard Division initiated identification process, with the aim to deport him to India. Every three months he received a decision prolonging his stay in the guarded center. The procedure was complicated and the Indian side uncooperative, enough to extend Manjeet’s detention until March 2019. He was finally released and detention was converted to an obligation to report. Even upon release however his identification procedure is still ongoing and he received no legal status, no final decision, no right to work, no social assistance, and no information as to how much longer he has to wait in this limbo. As his stay in Poland was brief, he can’t apply for humanitarian status, and the issuance of tolerated status depends on the Border Guard Division’s interpretation of his case and behaviour. The tolerated status may only be granted to persons otherwise “unreturnable” who have cooperated with the Border Guard in the identification process and have not been actively trying to disrupt it.

Ivan was born in Ukraine but Poland is the only country he has ever known and his only homeland. He came here with his parents when he was a baby. Soon after, his parents divorced and Ivan remained in Poland, as his father never gave consent for his mother to take him back to Ukraine. Twenty years later, Ivan came asking for our help. He was in legal limbo, the only trace of his origin being his name inscribed in his mom’s old Soviet passport. He felt Polish, he spoke Polish, he grew up among Polish friends and had a Polish girlfriend. Amazingly, even without proper documents, Ivan somehow managed to complete all stages of compulsory education in Poland, from kindergarten all the way to secondary school, including passing the “matura” exam with excellent grades. When it was time to look for a job and marrying his girlfriend Ivan realized however that he had to do something about his legal status. When the Ukraine consulate refused to issue him with a passport, he knew that he could soon lose his life in Poland. He feared being sent to Ukraine – a country he never knew and where he would risk being drafted into the army and sent to war with Russia. He came to our office after he read a press article about our involvement in stateless cases. “You are my only hope” – was the very first thing he told us then.

Ivan’s long-term residence in Poland, although irregular, paradoxically was the argument we could use in his case. We helped him collect all the documents confirming his story, attached letters of support from his many Polish friends and accompanied him to the Border Guard Division where he had to formally admit to staying without a legal permit, in order to start a return procedure. Four stressful months have passed before the Border Guard Division decided to grant him humanitarian status. Our involvement in the case and Ivan’s full integration into Polish society have helped him to receive a positive decision and the authorities withheld from filing for his detention. Once his status was resolved Ivan immediately picked up work and is now thinking about applying for Polish citizenship.

As these two very different cases illustrate, statelessness is not a phenomenon easy to understand and it often takes scrupulous legal verification and analysis before such a case may be properly assessed. Polish legal framework still lacks an adequate procedure that could limit the risks that stateless people face and that often discourage them from taking action with a view of regularizing their status. Lack of legal aid is an important factor as well, especially since stateless people are often unaware of the possibilities open to them. It should also be emphasised that statelessness always means deprivation of rights and access to services, which coupled with usually long-lasting proceedings is a considerable problem that should be resolved.

If you are interested in reading more about statelessness in Poland, please check the “Mapping Statelessness in Poland” report by HNLAC and UNHCR due to be published on the Refworld website.  

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