Addressing statelessness in Europe’s refugee response and why more needs to be done

Laura van Waas, ISI Co-director & Nina Murray, ENS Head of Policy and Research
/ 5 mins read

“During the initial registration, they wanted to register us as Bangladeshis. We all said no, we are not from there. They kept us there for five or six hours while they checked some things on the computer. I think they searched for information about Myanmar on the internet. After eight hours, they agreed to register us as from Myanmar.”

(Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, interviewed in Greece; 2018)

The Greek authorities responsible for registering this Rohingya refugee failed to identify that he was stateless. In fact, he was initially assumed to be from Bangladesh and not from Myanmar at all. Only after much perseverance, and an internet search, was Myanmar recorded – but then also as his country of nationality, obscuring still the reality of his statelessness. Neither the official, nor the refugee himself, knew any better in this instance. Both lacked the requisite knowledge, capacity and confidence to identify and ensure an accurate record of his statelessness.

On average, since 2015, approximately 3% of all asylum applicants in the EU were recorded as ‘stateless’, of ‘unknown nationality’, or their nationality was recorded as ‘Palestine’. Others, like this Rohingya refugee, were already stateless on arrival but this was overlooked or ignored, with an imputed nationality recorded instead. Many more refugees still come from countries with problematic nationality laws, meaning that they or their children are at risk of statelessness. Syria, for example, has been the country of origin of the largest number of asylum applicants to the EU every year since 2013. Under Syrian law women do not have the right to pass on their Syrian nationality to their children – the result being that the child of a Syrian refugee woman will be born stateless if the father is unknown, does not recognise the child or is unable to confer his nationality. The nationality laws of numerous other major countries of origin discriminate against women in the same way, including Iraq, Iran and Somalia.

Why then, do we hear so little about statelessness in debates on the gaps or failings of EU asylum and migration policy? The primary reason appears to be a fundamental lack of knowledge and limited interaction between stakeholder groups on these issues. This is the conclusion of research undertaken jointly by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, the European Network on Statelessness and national NGO partners throughout 2018. It was also the motivation for the launch of #StatelessJourneys: a project directed towards the design and dissemination of analytical and practical tools for advocacy, capacity-building, awareness-raising and community engagement, to protect the rights of stateless refugees and prevent new cases of statelessness arising among new arrivals in Europe.

At the centre of this new initiative is the #StatelessJourneys knowldge hub, a website launched this week to host information about how statelessness affects people’s journeys to and experience in seeking protection in Europe. One of the tools hosted on the site is a set of Country Position Papers, dedicated to outlining the nationality and statelessness issues in key countries of origin of refugees where significant problems exist. Among the first posted is a paper on Myanmar, which provides an overview of the populations affected by statelessness in the country, including but not limited to the Rohingya. Helping actors involved in the refugee response across Europe to access targeted information about statelessness and discriminatory nationality laws is one step towards making this problem more visible, recognised and appropriately addressed. For those interested to learn more about statelessness in Myanmar and Syria specifically, we have co-hosted two webinars with experts on nationality issues in these two countries, which are available to watch back on the website.

In addition to hosting downloadable tools and resources, the site also provides bite-sized information for refugee response actors, explaining how statelessness may be encountered at different stages of international protection procedures, and identifying some of the problems that can arise if it is not identified and dealt with appropriately. Read testimonies from our interviewees, like the Kuwaiti bidoon man on trying to explain his statelessness to a border guard in Greece who insisted on registering him as Iraqi; or the stateless Syrian woman fearing for the lives of her relatives making dangerous journeys through conflict zones to comply with Dutch family reunification requirements.

Other specific resources available on the site include stakeholder mapping tools for the Dutch context, to support stateless refugees and those assisting them to understand the complex procedures for registering as a stateless person in the Netherlands and find the right specialist support. The #StatelessJourneys project continues, and we will be uploading more resources over the course of the year as we work with our members and partners to push for concrete law and policy change. In May and June this year, we will also be in the UK, Spain, Greece and the Netherlands speaking to refugee activists, advocates and associations to find out what more they need from us to better understand and advocate for their rights.

Asylum and migration actors are starting to take note of nationality problems and the issue of statelessness. What we have learned from this project so far is that there is a great appetite for information and resources, and to do more. Our webinar on statelessness in Myanmar last week alone attracted 200 registrations of interest. We look forward to working with you together on this journey to supporting people affected by statelessness to have their voices heard and their rights fulfilled.

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