Ever since its foundation in 2002, the Halina Niec Legal Aid Center (HNLAC) has been providing free legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in Poland while simultaneously implementing a range of monitoring, training, research and advocacy initiatives, focusing on refugee protection. Over the 16 years of its existence, HNLAC has assisted in approximately 15,000 individual cases and has grown to become the leading Polish NGO providing regular legal aid to asylum seekers.
Since 2013, HNLAC has also been engaged in pioneering work on statelessness in Poland. Our initial interest in statelessness was sparked by arrival of individuals seeking legal advice, leading to the first study of the relevant regulations in Poland (see The Invisible Stateless Persons in Poland), followed by several publications produced in partnership with the European Network on Statelesness (ENS) (Protecting Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention in Poland and Ending Childhood Statelessness in Poland). This fruitful cooperation is now continued under the umbrella of the new Statelessness Index.
Working on statelessness in Poland resembles chasing shadows. Because statelessness hasn’t been the subject of extensive public debate or in-depth analysis, it never received much attention by state authorities, academia or even civil society organisations. To this day statelessness remains a hidden problem, underreported and easily dismissed by government officials as a technical issue in proper identification of foreigners rather than a question of legal status and access to rights.
According to the scarce data available, the stateless population in Poland exists but appears to be very small. This seems to be one of the prevailing reasons why the government continues to ignore the plight of stateless individuals, despite the fact they often remain without any readily available legal remedies for long periods of time. As there are no homogenous groups of stateless people with similar characteristics, nor a large in-situ population, the authorities regard cases as separate occurrences rather than part of a broader phenomenon.
Driven by this lack of reliable data, in 2017 HNLAC partnered with ENS to work on the Statelessness Index initiative - an online comparative tool that assess how countries in Europe protect stateless people and what they are doing to prevent and reduce statelessness. The data collected through the country survey allowed for a much-needed comprehensive assessment of law, policy and practice in Poland and to compare Poland’s performance against international norms and good practice. The country profile written based on the analysis of the data offers a concise, reliable and easy to compare information to organisations working on national and regional level. The Index is a welcome new tool that will help better understand and prevent statelessness.
Despite the ongoing work by HNLAC done in partnership with UNHCR and the Ombudsman’s Office, the Polish Government remains unwilling to address the plight of stateless people, arguing that the current regulations provide a sufficient response to their needs. In this regards the Statelessness Index will help advocates in highlighting specific legislative gaps and areas where Poland clearly lags behind its European counterparts. Index data from other countries can be used as a cross-reference to point Polish authorities to established good practice. It is especially important that the Index also includes information on the practice of administrative bodies and adjudicating courts, which offers a much broader perspective and examination of the situation on the ground. In the long-term, the Index will also be useful as an information resource helping stakeholders to design a statelessness determination procedure and introduce necessary changes in current legislation.
Our advocacy strategy is thus not only to convince the authorities to accede to the UN statelessness conventions and to establish a statelessness determination procedure, but also to revise national legislation to eliminate provisions limiting access to rights and securing the status of stateless individuals in Poland.
Challenges remain aplenty, but we are now better equipped to tackle these and to push forward in our effort to reduce statelessness and to protect stateless men, women and children in Poland.