The UNHCR study Mapping Statelessness in Finland was launched on 18 November, following similar studies already published in a number of European countries. The study in Finland is part of UNHCR Northern Europe’s work undertaken in preparation of the Global Action Plan to End Statelessness and the first one of the studies conducted in all eight Nordic and Baltic countries to be published.
When embarking on the background research and information gathering for this study, I very quickly realized that not much special attention had been given to the matter by the authorities or the civil society in practice. However, it also turned out that there was a fair bit of interest and great willingness to contribute to the study. The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri), which is the authority responsible for dealing with nationality matters, was extremely helpful and open in providing information and responses to my numerous questions and requests. An instrumental part of the study was also the research permit that Migri granted for the review of asylum decisions made with regard to stateless persons and persons of unknown nationality. This provided an invaluable insight in to the profiles of stateless people in Finland and to how statelessness is determined in practice.
In light of the statistics, the numbers of stateless persons in Finland are not enormous but not negligible either. At the end of 2011 (the research was mainly conducted in 2012), there were 760 individuals registered as “stateless” and 618 as of “unknown nationality”. These statistics are drawn from the Population Information System and exclude individuals whose stay in Finland is for the moment considered temporary (such as asylum seekers) or who reside in Finland illegally. In the past couple of years, the number of stateless asylum seekers has been around 30 and of those with unknown nationality around 80 per year. Statistics on stateless persons who have entered Finland through other immigration procedures are not available currently due to insufficient recording of statelessness in those procedures; improvements in this regard was one of the recommendations made in the study.
Finland is party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the European Convention on Nationality, as well as to a range of other human rights treaties relevant to the right to a nationality. The Finnish national legislation is particularly comprehensive and well in line with the 1961 Convention and other international standards on prevention of statelessness at birth and later in life. Importantly, in accordance with the Nationality Act, a child born in Finland who would otherwise be stateless automatically acquires Finnish nationality at birth. In addition, the core safeguard against statelessness later in life – that a person cannot renounce, lose or be deprived of his or her nationality in any circumstances if that would leave him or her stateless – is a Constitutional principle and has also been repeated in the Nationality Act. These principles have been further promoted in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Administrative Court.
The main challenges in addressing statelessness in Finland are found in the area covered by the 1954 Convention, i.e. identification and protection of stateless persons. Finland does not currently have a specific statelessness determination procedure, but there is a citizenship status determination procedure in place in which statelessness can be determined. While determination of statelessness is not an explicitly stated purpose of the procedure, there are nevertheless certain elements that are advantageous in determining statelessness. The procedure is handled by the Nationality Unit of Migri which has special expertise in nationality matters. The requests for determination of citizenship status can be made by individuals themselves, internally by Migri (e.g. in connection to asylum procedure) and by other authorities. The most common type of request for determination is a request made by the Local Register Offices for determination of citizenship status of a child born in Finland. In these cases in particular, the procedure has an important function in preventing statelessness – if the child is determined to be stateless, he or she will automatically acquire Finnish nationality. The procedure is subject to general rules of administrative law which ensures, for example, that citizenship status determination decisions by Migri can be appealed to the Administrative Court. Although not explicitly mentioned in law, the procedure is in practice considered to be open also to individuals who reside in Finland illegally.
However, as this procedure has not been specifically intended for determining statelessness in light of the Nationality Act, its preparatory work or the current practice, it has some clear gaps in terms of determination of statelessness. The most significant weakness is the very high standard of proof that is imposed for recognition of statelessness and the burden of proof which lies heavily on the applicant. While the benefit of the doubt principle is a widely accepted and applied principle in the Finnish jurisprudence in the context of determination of refugee status, the same principle has not been accepted as applicable when determining statelessness. Moreover, the procedure is almost entirely written and no interviews are conducted. The written nature further stresses the importance of documentary proof – lack of which is often inherent to statelessness. These weaknesses in the procedure increase the risk of failure to recognize a person as stateless, who as a result often ends up in the category of “unknown nationality”.
Another major weakness in the area of protection of stateless persons is the lack of a specific statelessness status and a possibility to grant a residence permit based on the individual’s statelessness. This may indeed not be necessary and appropriate in all cases, for example when the stateless person enjoys the right of residence in another country. In many cases however, if a residence permit is not granted at all or if the permit is not of such nature that it enables full enjoyment of the rights set in the 1954 Convention, the purpose of the 1954 Convention is defeated.
The framework and practice for addressing statelessness in Finland is a combination of highly commendable in terms of the prevention of statelessness and promising with the need for some improvements in terms of identification and protection of stateless people. Of significant importance would be strengthening the citizenship status determination procedure through adjusting the standard and burden of proof and ensuring interviews of individuals with statelessness claims. In addition, reviewing the protection framework in particular with regard to the possibility of grant of a residence permit upon recognition of statelessness would be a welcome step. These relatively easily achieved improvements, building on a solid existing foundation, would go a long way in making Finland one of the champions in addressing statelessness in Europe and globally.