I Am Human: New UNHCR report reveals the experiences of stateless people in the UK

Zainnab Makele, Protection Associate, UNHCR UK
/ 5 mins read

In the final instalment of our three blog series focusing on the UK, the experiences of stateless people are brought to light in UNHCR’s new report, alongside their recommendations for improving the country’s statelessness determination procedure.

Recognised Stateless Person who spent over a decade in limbo, photographed in London during lockdown. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow.
Recognised stateless person who spent over a decade in limbo, photographed in London during lockdown. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow.

UNHCR’s latest report on the experiences of stateless people in the UK starts with the words ‘I AM HUMAN’. These are words from one of the participants in the study who, for over 12 years, had sought to regularise his stay in the UK. In early 2020 he made a second application for statelessness leave and was recently granted five years leave to remain as a stateless person. Like others affected by statelessness, he spent years feeling invisible with limited ability to work, study or travel; all things that many of us take for granted.

Stateless recognition in the UK

In 2013, the UK Government introduced a Statelessness Determination Procedure (SDP) which enabled stateless persons to apply for recognition of their status and a grant of leave to remain. In 2018, UNHCR undertook an audit into the UK Home Office’s approach to decision-making in the SDP. This was the first ever comprehensive audit UNHCR has made into an SDP globally and it drew attention to good practice and key concerns in decision-making for statelessness leave, as highlighted in a recent ENS blog.

Having undertaken the audit, UNHCR wondered who the people behind statelessness applications are and wanted to know what they had to say about their experiences. In 2020, UNHCR interviewed 12 individuals who have been recognised as stateless or have ongoing applications for statelessness leave in the UK. The goal of the research was to develop an understanding of the experiences and challenges faced when applying for statelessness leave and provide an insight into the everyday protection difficulties experienced by stateless persons or those at risk of statelessness.

The report highlights that there is no one face of statelessness in the UK. Interviewees were stateless for different reasons, such as being stateless from birth or having no ability to prove their identity due to lost identification documentation. In one case, the Malaysian Embassy in India lost his national passport and in another, the Home Office had lost his original passport. For another interviewee, the British High Commission abroad had issued him a British passport in error, and he was only informed of the error after he had renounced the citizenship of his country of birth and travelled to the UK.

Those interviewed for the research also found themselves in the UK for different reasons and a few did not have any intention of staying in the country long-term. It was striking that many had been searching for so long for some kind of a solution. Nine had been in the UK for over 10 years with no leave to remain. They had mostly arrived before the existence of the SDP and therefore had been living in limbo, either in the asylum system or without any documentation. This highlights why it is so important for countries to establish an SDP and, whilst the UK has demonstrated good practice in introducing one, further progress is needed.

Statelessness determination procedure: a tool for protection with room for improvement

The interviewees made recommendations for improvement of the UK’s SDP. They suggested that interviews should be a standard part of the application process. They also requested legal aid for statelessness leave applications in England and Wales and called for shorter application processes. Many applications are left as outstanding for over a year and the interviewees found the length of the application procedure particularly stressful. This is because many applicants are generally not entitled to financial support and have no right to work whilst waiting for an outcome. As a result, they face exploitation or destitution and rely heavily on friends, family, or charity to survive. The interviewees struggled with this lack of financial independence and the inability to participate fully in society. A few reported serious mental health concerns. Two spoke of going through a period of deep depression. Another spent some time in hospital due to suicidal thoughts.

“Believe me it’s very hard, very, very hard. The psychology is the hardest bit, not even the little money we get for food…it’s hard. You have to wait a long time for an answer so you experience more depression; you ask why they are taking a long time but even your solicitor can’t help. The Home Office just says that they are busy.” – Eduardo* (interviewee)

The interviewees all raised the human rights challenges they have faced as a result of their precarious status. Those we spoke to experienced exploitation, detention and homelessness whilst in the UK. The interviewees also all noted how a lack of identity made them feel less than human and as if they had no sense of belonging. They wanted people to spend a day in their shoes and imagine the sense of hopelessness, which they have felt much of their lives.

Importantly, the report also highlights that the SDP is not merely an administrative procedure; its existence is of crucial importance to protecting those who are stateless from harm within the UK.

UNHCR hopes to shed light on the challenges many stateless people face, and we are working closely with the Home Office to improve the SDP and the lives of stateless persons in the UK. In particular, UNHCR calls for the Home Office to approach statelessness as a protection issue and statelessness leave as a protection route in the UK.  

To support UNHCR’s work in the UK and globally, we encourage you to join our iBelong Campaign which aims to end statelessness by 2024. Find out what steps you can take here.

This blog forms part of a three blog series focusing on statelessness in the UK.

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