In 2015 award-winning Greg Constantine visited Malta as part of his photographic journey around Europe, documenting the lives of detained stateless persons. He spent much of his time with our client and friend, Alexander: a young man from Sierra Leone who, having entered Malta in an irregular manner, was detained for over one year under a regime that has since been repeatedly found by the European Court of Human Rights to be arbitrary and illegal. When Sierra Leone’s consular representatives insisted Alexander was not Sierra Leonian, he became stateless. With no formal legal status, he had no documents, no rights, no identity and no place to call home.
Touching photos of Alexander can be seen across our website, in the ENS and aditus foundation report on the arbitrary detention of stateless persons in Malta, and in the ENS’s rRegional toolkit for practitioners. Unfortunately Alexander’s story did not end with his appearance in these publications. Nor did it improve.
Over a very short time since then his mental health deteriorated rapidly, linked to his constant search for peace of mind and rest. He was dismissed from work due to his worsening condition, and quickly became homeless and destitute. In late 2016, having used force to resist a racist attack, he was charged before Malta’s criminal courts and sentenced to time in a mental health hospital. Ironically, it was thanks to his desperate mental state that we were able to obtain humanitarian protection for Alexander. He is now protected from attempts to remove him, and also from arbitrary detention related to such attempts. He remains imprisoned in the mental health hospital.
Last week, during the ENS conference Protecting Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention, over 120 participants focused their attention on the legal and policy regimes that allow these horrendous stories to happen across Europe. Presentations included national perspectives, institutional responses, and policy discussions that looked into the various aspects of the arbitrary detention of stateless persons. It’s difficult to summarise or even mention them all, but I’ve taken home the pictures and words of Stephania (ADC Memorial), Ben (International Detention Coalition), MEP Jean Lambert, Amal De Chickera (Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion) and Tim Parritt (Oak Foundation).
Coupled with these presentations, a series of smaller workshops allowed us to really put our heads together to talk about concrete methodologies, tools, mechanisms and strategies to ensure the fullest respect for the right to liberty of stateless people. Key themes we keenly engaged with included alternatives to detention, identification of stateless persons within a detention context, practical identification and assessment tools, and data collection.
But what made this Budapest conference so special was the energy in the room, generated by the presence of such a large group of activists who – on a daily basis – are supporting and advocating for people who would otherwise remain invisible in an increasingly more difficult and restricted space civil society groups operate in.
During the conference ENS launched its most recent report, Protecting Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention: An Agenda for Change. The report is an urgent reminder to European governments of their international human rights obligations, and an appeal for them to establish the procedures necessary to identfy stateless persons, as a key tool to protect them from detention that violates their fundamental human right to liberty.
The report is accompanied by a statement, open now for endorsement by civil society organisations, academics, and other actors. In the statement we are collectively urging European states to end the arbitrary detention of stateless persons through five key action points: implementation of alternatives to detention, establishment of a Statelessness Determination Procedure, respect and ensuring the protection of the fundamental human rights of stateless persons, supporting integration of stateless persons, and improving data collection and reporting. If these elements, individually or collectively, are relevant to your context, you can endorse the statement and contribute to adding visibility to this initiative.
Next week, when I’ll visit Alexander in hospital, I’ll tell him how his story – once again – touched the hearts of so many people. I’ll tell him that he is not alone, that there are hundreds of brilliant people tirelessly challenging the systems that allow his misery to continue. Well done, and thanks, to ENS for the experience.