Do stateless people have a right to die?

Katarína Fajnorová, The Human Rights League, Slovakia
/ 7 mins read

It was in October last year (2014) when Tereza, the long-term partner of my stateless client, came to my office and said to me: “Roman is in hospital and it is serious, doctors say...“. She started to cry.

Roman and Tereza had spent over 14 years together, most of that time on the street or in homeless shelters. Tereza is a Slovak citizen. She is almost blind and unable to work because she is severely disabled. Roman was from Kosovo: he had no documents, no residence permit in Slovakia, and therefore no right to get married.

Roman’s father was a Yugoslav citizen and his mother was a citizen of the former USSR. Early in his life, his mother took Roman to Russia to live with his grandmother, and abandoned him. Before he reached legal maturity (which would have enabled him to have access to an ID), his grandmother died and he started to wander around Europe without any personal documents.

More than twenty (20) years ago, Roman came to Slovakia and there he remained: facing numerous arrests and suffering prolonged periods in detention for the purpose of his deportation from the territory of Slovakia. He applied for asylum repeatedly - three (3) times in total - without success. He was never granted asylum, nor subsidiary protection. His asylum application submitted in 2005 was rejected as “manifestly unfounded”. That same year he was issued with an expulsion order with a ban on entry for 10 years (meaning until 2015). However, as neither Serbia, nor Kosovo, nor the Russian Federation ever confirmed his citizenship, his forced expulsion from Slovakia could not be implemented and his detention became purposeless. Therefore, in 2006 he was granted tolerated stay because “his departure from Slovakia was not possible and his detention was not effective”. Since then his tolerated stay got prolonged repeatedly every 6 months. Being granted only a tolerated stay, he never had a right to work in Slovakia, and he never had access to the public health insurance system. He was doomed by the system to live on the street.

You may have read Roman’s stateless story already on the stories page of the ENS website. This blog entry, however, is not about Roman’s life; it is about his death, and about my experience with arranging his funeral.

A few weeks after his life partner, Tereza, came to my office to inform me about his hospitalisation, they called me from the hospital and informed me about his death. And then the question arose of who would pay for his funeral? His partner, being homeless herself, could not afford to pay for it. There is, fortunately, a law in Slovakia, which says that in the case where nobody arranges a funeral within 96 hours after the person becomes deceased, the local authority should arrange it. Knowing this, I called the local authority to find out about the funeral and to inform them that both Roman’s partner and I would like to come to the funeral.  

I found out the following shocking information: a) there is no funeral; the local authority pays for the cheapest possible version of cremation only; b) it is not possible for a partner to come for a last farewell, because there is none; c) the ashes cannot be given afterwards to Tereza, because she is not Roman’s wife; therefore the ashes will be stored at the crematory for some time and then will be scattered with ashes of other homeless people in an unknown location. I was trying to explain to the lady at the local office that Tereza is the only close relative of Roman for the last 14 years, and that the only reason why they never married is the fact that he lacked necessary documents. This explanation was not of interest to the authority.  

I tried with the crematorium, because I believed they would understand the situation and would at least allow for the visit of Tereza to give a last farewell to her beloved partner. And here I discovered even more shocking information when I was told about the process of cremation. What happens is that they bring the body from the hospital in a plastic sack, the body is naked, and there is no decent coffin (just a paper one), in which they place him before cremation. I suggested we could bring a suit, but preparing him in the coffin for viewing and allowing the space for that last farewell, etc. costs extra money – and this the local authority would not pay for. After repeated phone calls, they agreed they would allow Tereza to come to the basement of the crematorium before the cremation takes place to say goodbye to him in a closed coffin for ten minutes. However, another legal obstacle appeared. As Roman was not a Slovak citizen, the local authority was obliged, in accordance with the law, to inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about his death and wait for either information about the transfer of the human remains to another country or consent to bury Roman in Slovakia. Waiting for this reply, two weeks passed since Roman’s death. However, the law also states the dead body should be buried or cremated within 14 days; otherwise it must be placed in a freezer, which, again, costs extra money. All these complications meant that at the end there was no time for a last farewell at all. The cremation took place immediately after the body was transferred from the hospital – without Tereza.    

A naked stateless and homeless body was burnt anonymously, without any last words from a priest or anyone else, and without the presence of the only person that cared about him and loved him - Tereza. He lived the sad life of a person whose identity was never recognized and he left this world alone, with no single manifestation of recognition of his human dignity. 

Would his life and death be different if he was not stateless or if he was at least given a chance to live normally, with a residence and work permit? Maybe yes, and maybe not; maybe he would have chosen the same destiny anyway. But the system never gave him a chance, and therefore we will never know. Due to the fact of not being officially recognized as stateless by the Slovak authorities and not being granted protection based on the 1954 Convention, he fell into the category of the most desperate cases we deal with – the category of unreturnable people with no right to work and sustain themselves. There are many reasons to introduce a statelessness determination procedure in Slovakia and this story is indeed one of them. Maybe being recognized as stateless and granted a permanent residence permit would not have solved all the problems of Roman’s life, but it would have given him at least a chance for change.

We all know that to many stateless people in the world, even the most basic human right - the right to live - is denied. Based on my experience I will finish this article with a different question: Do stateless people have a right to die? And to die with the dignity that every human being deserves?

In 2014, the Human Rights League, with financial support from the European Network on Statelessness, took part in a campaign to protect stateless people and introduce a statelessness determination procedure. As part of this campaign we collected stories of our stateless clients, Roman being one of them. Some of the stories are published on the ENS website as well as in a report compiling other individual testimonies from across Europe. As part of the advocacy activities we also prepared short animated movies portraying the human impact of statelessness on three real cases. Unlike Roman’s story, these three stories have been successful, Ibrahim and Natalia were granted a permanent residence permit and Ali was granted Slovak citizenship. If you would like to watch short films documenting these individual stories, you can find them on Vimeo:

Natalia’s story:

Ibrahim’s story:

Ali’s story:

However, there are still people in Slovakia who are not recognized as stateless and are unable to prove their statelessness (which is a precondition for being granted a permanent residence permit as a stateless person), and are therefore left unprotected and marginalised. More advocacy activities are needed in order to convince the Slovak government about the importance of introducing a statelessness determination procedure.  

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