This blog post introduces new research, conducted as part of the #StatelessJourneys project, into the challenges faced by stateless claimants within asylum procedures in the UK context. The study focuses on the experiences of stateless Kurds from Syria in the UK, revealing hurdles related to civil documentation, cultural understanding, and language analysis. These findings emphasize the need for more statelessness-sensitive procedures and policy changes, both in the UK and within other countries of asylum across Europe.
Might stateless people face greater challenges in claiming asylum, and navigating the related systems, than their citizen counterparts fleeing from the same country of origin? If so, what kinds of challenges? The hypothetical framing of the above questions reflects the fact that, to date, much of the understanding around such topics has been solely based on anecdotal observations (e.g., narrated experiences and perceptions from individual stateless asylum seekers and/or their legal advocates). Although these anecdotes have often pointed towards stateless asylum seekers experiencing unique struggles when claiming asylum, little research has yet been conducted on the issue.
In theory (and according to international law!), the fact that an asylum seeker may also be stateless should not have any detrimental impact on their asylum claim. Indeed, Art 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention makes explicit reference to the possibility of asylum seekers and refugees “not having a nationality” (i.e. being stateless). While the intersection of statelessness and international refugee law has been scrutinised by legal scholars (with whole books written on the topic, see: Foster and Lambert; Fripp), surprisingly little consideration has been given to the practical experiences of stateless asylum seekers as they navigate the procedures.
Responding to these significant knowledge gaps and policy oversights, ENS’s ongoing #StatelessJourneys project focuses on the need to better identify and address statelessness within refugee contexts. As part of this work, I undertook a scoping study of the experiences of stateless Kurds from Syria when claiming asylum in the UK. Profiling the cases of 15 such asylum seekers (8 of whom consented for their case documentation to be reviewed), the study focused on ways in which their statelessness might cause disadvantages in the process of determining their country of origin (to be Syria). The resultant report - “Your Credibility is Undermined” Challenges in Determining Country of Origin for Stateless Asylum Seekers: Kurds from Syria in the UK - highlights three areas where Home Office procedures produce such concerns: i) civil documentation ii) questions about local contextual knowledge iii) use of language analysis.
Findings indicate that Home Office decision-makers sometimes dismiss from consideration the only documents a stateless Kurd would likely possess. While it is acknowledged that such documents are primitive (i.e. including no fraud-resistant mechanisms such as holograms), this goes against established norms in UK jurisprudence that a “document should not be viewed in isolation [but that t]he decision maker should look at the evidence as a whole or in the round.” Moreover, the Home Office’s own guidelines state that “it is not appropriate to attach little or no weight to a document without giving reasons based on the available evidence regarding its reliability.”
Regarding cultural and contextual awareness, often little or no account was given for the fact that stateless people may have different lived experiences in a country that does not recognise them as citizens. Stateless Kurds, for example, were often excluded from participation in key events and celebrations relating to the ruling Ba’ath Party. The cases reviewed in this study indicate that it is primarily these “official” celebrations and forms of associated cultural knowledge that asylum officials focus on when asking questions to determine country of origin.
Finally, the cases reviewed in this study indicate that language analysis was often heavily relied upon by decision-makers when the Country of Origin was in question. This may be particularly problematic for stateless applicants given that often people affected by statelessness live in border regions, or are part of minority or trans-border communities (like the Kurds). Indeed, according to the UN, 75% of stateless people worldwide belong to minority communities.
This scoping study has thus provided an evidence base for how members of one particular profile of people affected by statelessness encounter unique challenges and are disadvantaged within the procedures of the UK asylum system. No doubt some of these findings will be applicable to other stateless asylum seekers and to other asylum contexts. Therefore, similar research is clearly needed to better understand the variation in treatment and experience across other profiles of stateless asylum seekers and within other countries of asylum.
Ultimately, this research underscores the need for the continuation of the #StatelessJourneys project, both to better understand the experiences of stateless asylum seekers/refugees and to advocate for more statelessness-sensitive procedures and approaches by decision-makers. To this end, it is hoped that the UK Home Office review the implications of its policies and procedures for stateless applicants.