'Awaiting' - Stateless lives in Hungary

Anikó Bakonyi (Senior Programme Officer, Hungarian Helsinki Committee) and Gábor Gyulai (Refugee Programme Director, Hungarian Helsinki Committee and ENS Board Member)
/ 8 mins read

In 2007, Hungary was the world’s fifth country to introduce a statelessness determination procedure and protection status for those identified as stateless. This was an undoubtedly progressive move, but fourteen years have now passed. Did this translate into actual protection for Hungary’s stateless population? Or is Hungary’s protection regime an empty shell offering thin integration prospects? Through interviews conducted by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee with stateless people living in the country, we try to answer this question.

Stateless in Hungary report cover
Hungarian Helsinki Committee's research examines the lives of stateless persons in Hungary

The Hungarian statelessness determination procedure has been praised for being the first such framework globally to be based on a wide range of well-written procedural rules. In 2015, the Hungarian Constitutional Court eliminated the procedure’s Achilles heel, the requirement of lawful stay for submitting an application, ruling that such limitations are at odds with the country’s obligations under the 1954 Statelessness Convention. By 2020, 288 persons had applied for stateless status, with 147 applicants recognised as stateless, and 70 claims rejected. These figures may seem shockingly modest, and much could be done to improve access to the procedure. However, Hungary is not home to a significant stateless population. Thus, by merely looking at the procedural aspects of a statelessness-specific international protection regime, at first glance it may seem to be a positive picture. A surprising first impression of the country that represents the most dramatic example of rapid democratic decline and unlawful, inhuman asylum policies in Europe.

But to create a meaningful statelessness-specific protection regime, an effectively functioning statelessness determination procedure is only one of the boxes that must be ticked. Determining statelessness is not worth a dime if it is not followed by the grant of a meaningful protection status, which allows the holder to live a stable, dignified life and to acquire a nationality within a reasonable time. Earlier research by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee already demonstrated that stateless persons have only half the statistical chance to successfully naturalise in Hungary than average foreigners without a Hungarian ethnic background. The vast majority of stateless applicants for naturalisation get rejected, in an extremely opaque procedure, in which no decision is justified, no evidence or documents are revealed to applicants and in which neither administrative, nor judicial appeal exists. For example, the responsible Hungarian authority rejected the naturalisation claim of an Afghan stateless-refugee family five times, despite their clear criminal record, above average economic situation, and the fact that all four children were already born in Hungary and never lived elsewhere. Reason? Unknown.

‘Always waiting’

Thin naturalisation chances may only be the tip of the iceberg. Until now, there has never been research examining the lives of stateless persons in Hungary, or whether the protection offered allows them to access rights, integrate and live a dignified life. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has been researching the ‘protection experience’ of stateless persons by collecting information on their on-going protection and assistance needs. The extremely small size of the stateless population in Hungary, combined with the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, made outreach difficult. Nevertheless, we conducted six interviews with stateless persons in Hungary between October and December 2020. Some of the interviewees possess stateless status, while others are in different legal situations. However, ‘waiting’ was a reoccurring element in all interviews.

The extremely long statelessness determination procedure puts people’s lives in limbo: ‘always waiting’ as one of the interviewees described it. For some who have been living in Hungary for over a decade, acquiring this status is their last chance for a regularised stay and a new start. Even when they receive this protection status, most people feel that this offers a limited degree of protection. The fact that most interviewees shared this feeling points to systemic deficiencies.

What are the missing elements?

Status holders feel that the first obstacle is the lack of information on stateless status. When applicants receive their papers, the authorities fail to inform them of their rights and next possible steps in an accessible way, and do not direct them to organisations that could assist them. Similarly, the asylum authority fails to share information on this status to authorities who may come into contact with stateless people, impacting on status holders’ employment and the recognition of their documents. Authorities often do not understand the meaning of statelessness and the documents status holders have, which can prove to be a serious disadvantage when, for example, the police stop them or they go to the municipality and cannot present a Hungarian address card (stateless status does not entitle holders to register a domicile and have an address card in Hungary).

All interviewees mentioned that having to secure a work permit in order to be employed in Hungary, unlike in the case of refugees, is the most significant barrier. Smaller companies in Hungary are often unaware of this highly bureaucratic and lengthy procedure and may not even have the necessary capacity to engage with it. This results in fewer opportunities and a reduced chance of employment for stateless people. As one interviewee phrased it, ‘the right to work is the most important. Without this, the status does not make sense’.

Employment is not only important as an avenue to a dignified and stable life. It is also necessary to access the health care system. In Hungary, in most cases employment is a condition for having access to full social security coverage. By the time a person receives this protection status they might have already suffered through years of hardship which may take a serious toll on their health. Being able to access the health care system is therefore crucial.

A new beginning for some

Despite the numerous difficulties mentioned by interviewees, for some, being recognised as stateless is a new beginning. One interviewee summarised his year-long experience of fighting for this status: ‘They tried to deport me. This status means a lot to me. I was able to get a job and I have the permit to travel’.

Family and the wish to be able to reconnect was also a reoccurring theme. As one person recalled, ‘[It is] not easy being away from your family’. The travel document has proven a useful tool for making this wish come true. For another interviewee, the ability to travel and see loved ones contributed to feeling dignified.

When stateless people reflect on their lives, it becomes evident what an impact the lack of a nationality has, and that nationality carries a meaning for them far beyond the rights that it entails. The absence of a state protecting their interests can be felt when they say that ‘you feel powerless and unsafe’ and ‘you feel like you belong nowhere’. The emotional toll statelessness takes on individual lives could be alleviated by acquiring a nationality – the only real ‘durable solution’ to this human rights violation. Unfortunately, this process is extremely difficult and frustrating in Hungary. Some of our interviewees have been rejected multiple times without knowing why, since authorities are under no obligation to provide a reasoned decision. Thus, the feeling of ‘being without a home country’ may continue for a long time. The desire to belong was expressed by several people and naturalisation could be a way of confirming that the person has a place they can call their own.

What measures are needed?

Having a well-regulated and functioning statelessness determination procedure in Hungary is certainly beneficial, particularly the clear protection provision in law which stipulates that stateless persons are entitled to a humanitarian residence permit. However, these interviews have shown that Hungary is far from being a ‘safe haven’ for stateless persons. Much of the hardship stateless people face emanates from the overall difficulties non-EU foreigners, and particularly those in need of protection, experience in Hungary. Some of the obstacles include bureaucracy, xenophobia, language issues and the complete lack of state support for integration. And yet, our research has confirmed that when it comes to the status of stateless persons, integration prospects and access to rights could be significantly improved by a few simple measures.

Statelessness determination procedures can be suspended without time limit in Hungary, resulting in some cases, in procedures being prolonged for several years. Applicants for stateless status are only entitled to receive a ‘temporary residence certificate’, providing no more than the right to stay on the territory. In line with UNHCR’s recommendation, Hungary should introduce a six-month time limit on the administrative statelessness determination procedure. The time limit could only be prolonged by another six months if justified by force majeure circumstances. If the procedure is prolonged beyond the initial six months, applicants should be able to seek employment while awaiting the decision, and to apply for basic social benefits and support in order to avoid homelessness and destitution.

Stateless persons are currently granted an initial three-year residence permit, but after it expires this can only be extended for one year at a time, a distinction no other migratory status has in Hungary. Three-year extension intervals would help stateless persons acquire stability in Hungary, and significantly improve their long-term employment and integration efforts.

Similar to refugees, stateless persons should be granted the right to employment without obtaining a work permit, and be exempt from the currently mandatory ‘labour market assessment’, a requirement which demonstrates that no Hungarian or other EU citizen is suitable for the same job. In the past five years, Hungary granted stateless status to just 16 persons, meaning the impact of this measure on the Hungarian labour market would be literally zero. Yet, for a few dozen persons such a change would mean long-awaited access to jobs and economic stability.

Stateless status should also automatically entail the establishment of a ‘domicile’ (lakóhely) and the issuance of an address card, which would immediately reduce bureaucratic difficulties for status holders, speed up their access to naturalisation, and for children born to parents living in Hungary with stateless status, strengthen the currently ineffective safeguards against statelessness at birth.

Looking beyond Hungary, our research has re-confirmed that advocates for the rights of stateless persons should not fall into the trap of promoting merely statelessness determination procedures. For genuine solutions in a migratory context, we must advocate for comprehensive statelessness-specific protection regimes that equally include a meaningful protection status and access to durable solutions. Our job is not finished as long as one of these three elements is missing.

Interested in more details about statelessness in Hungary? Check the Hungary chapter of the European Statelessness Index by ENS.

This article, as well as the research it is based on, have been supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the UNHCR or any other entity.

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