Born at the age of 70

Maria Julia Cerdas, former member of the stateless division for Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
/ 4 mins read

As a young teenager in the 1950s, Eloisa was abandoned in Costa Rica. She found herself in a Central American country that she'd never been to before, and in a place where she hadn't known anyone. Now, when asked about her past, Eloisa can recall only vague memories of her childhood – she does not know where she was born, who her family was, and how she came to Costa Rica. She believes that she may have been born in Honduras, but she is not sure. The only thing she remembers with certainty is the cold and the fear of being alone.

After some time in Costa Rica Eloisa managed to secure a job. Underpaid and overworked, she did not have access to public education or healthcare. In the eyes of the State, she did not exist. 

Eloisa was still underaged when she met the father of her children, who was abusive to her. After years of abuse, he eventually abandoned Eloisa and their six children. She endured this without the protection of the law. She did not exist.

Although the term was unknown to her, Eloisa was stateless. At that time Costa Rica had not yet developed a procedure for statelessness determination. It was not until 1977 that Costa Rica acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

In the late 1980s, Eloisa‘s life changed dramatically when she fell ill and had to be hospitalized to undergo emergency surgery. Because of this, her six children were taken away from her and were placed in an orphanage. As she had no identification papers, she could not prove that she was their mother when she was discharged from the hospital. For more than five years she was unable to regain custody of her children, sneaking to get a glimpse of them through the fence of the orphanage. In 1992, with the help of a pro-bono lawyer, she was able to regain custody of her children. Still, she continued living in the shadows; she did not exist.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica had cosponsored several resolutions at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) pushing for the eradication of statelessness, including the "Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness and Protection of Stateless Persons in the Americas" (AG/RES 2599 (XL-O/10)) resolution that called upon Member States that had not yet done so to consider ratifying or acceding to international instruments on stateless persons, as appropriate, and to promote the adoption of procedures and institutional mechanisms for their implementation in accordance with those instruments. Costa Rica also cosponsored the resolution "Prevention and Reduction of Statelessness and Protection of Stateless Persons in the Americas" (AG/RES. 2826 (XLIV-O/14)), which again recommended that Member States establish a statelessness determination procedure.

At the ministerial intergovernmental meeting held in Switzerland in 2011, and organized by UNHCR in the framework of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the "Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951" and the 50th anniversary of the "Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness of 1961", Costa Rica pledged to adopt a statelessness determination procedure.

In 2015 Eloisa started having complications related to her diabetes but the public hospital refused to provide her with medical treatment. Finally, after years of struggle, Eloisa decided that she had to fight for her rights, and so her search for help began. Amongst other institutions, she sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but received no answer. It was not until November 2016 that the Regulation for the Statelessness Determination Procedure (Presidential Decree N.39620-RE-G.) came into force and the proper authorities became aware of Eloisa´s case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs began an investigation into Eloisa’s past, using diplomatic channels to consult Honduras and other countries. Unfortunately, none of the countries acknowledged Eloisa as a national.

When the legal department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Eloisa for an interview, she was surprised and excited, having never received a response from a government authority about her situation. Eventually, Eloisa was provided with a provisional identification card as an applicant for stateless status. In 70 years, this was the first document she ever held with her picture and name on it.

The year 2017 was an important one for Eloisa. The government of Costa Rica modified the existing law to include and provide facilitated access to the naturalization process for recognised stateless people. It was also the year Eloisa was officially declared stateless by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Eloisa immediately began filling the paperwork for her naturalization, and a couple of months later she became the first person in the American continent to be recognized as a national of a country after being declared stateless.

Eloisa finally existed, she was born at the age of 70.

Eloisa now lives like any other Costa Rican citizen, with a pension, access to regular healthcare appointments, a passport, a bank account and many other basic rights and privileges that are often taken for granted.  When asked about her future Eloisa says “All I want now is to belong and for the government not to forget that I exist.” 

Costa Rica became the first country in the American Continent to ratify the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions, to have a working statelessness determination procedure and to provide facilitated access to naturalization.

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