“He is the soul of our centre. The most honest, responsible and hardworking person we have here. And he does not drink any alcohol! He is a Muslim, you know...” says Mr Anton Srholec, a well-known Slovak priest and former political dissident from communist times, now running a homeless shelter in Bratislava. “In the mornings, when we drive to the shop, I sing a Catholic prayer and then Ibrahim sings his morning suras for me; we understand each other”, adds Mr Srholec.
Ibrahim is a Berber from the Moroccan desert. He is fifty-two, and has lived in Slovakia for more than 20 years on the margins of society without documents, without a residence permit and without rights. Ibrahim applied for asylum five times, but has never been granted any protection status (not even on humanitarian grounds). He lived on the street, in reception facilities for asylum-seekers, in homeless shelters, and was also detained several times. Because no response was ever given by the Moroccan authorities, the Police never managed to deport Ibrahim back to Morocco.
I met Ibrahim almost three years ago in Medveďov, in a detention centre for irregular migrants. He had been transferred there immediately after being discharged from the hospital, where he had been treated for a few weeks for lung diseases and tuberculosis. The legal ground for his detention was an envisaged deportation from Slovakia to his “home country”, Morocco. However, it was clear that this deportation would never take place and therefore the detention did not serve its purpose. In fact, following our appeal, the Regional Court in Trnava cancelled the detention order issued by the Police arguing that “the necessity of detention was not justified”. Ibrahim was released from detention, but his deportation order was still in force.
One day, he came to my office with a small backpack, in which he carried all his possessions and asked: “I have nowhere to go, I have no family and no friends here; I cannot leave this country because I don’t have a passport. What should I do?”. That was indeed a difficult question: the Slovak legislation in force back then did not contain any provision that would have allowed a stateless person with no documents to obtain a proper residence permit. The only status for which an undocumented foreigner could apply for was “tolerated stay”, which provides no right to work legally, no access to health insurance, and therefore no possibility to live a dignified life. Not seeing any future in Slovakia, Ibrahim decided to apply for voluntary return to Morocco at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as a result of which he was granted three-month “tolerated stay”, during which the return arrangements were to be carried out.
Ibrahim remained registered with IOM for two years and five months; meanwhile his tolerated stay was repeatedly prolonged. However, the Moroccan authorities never responded to IOM’s requests to issue a travel document, nor did they confirm that Ibrahim was a Moroccan citizen.
Then, in January 2012, the new Slovak Foreigners Act became effective, introducing a provision under which stateless people could apply for a permanent residence permit, on the grounds of their statelessness. To do so, a stateless person should demonstrate her/his statelessness in relation to the state of birth, the state of previous residence or stay, and the state of nationality of her/his parents and other family members.
After having successfully used this new provision with regard to another client, we tried to go down the same road with Ibrahim, arguing that his persisting non-returnability to Morocco should be considered sufficient evidence of his statelessness (Ibrahim has never received any official document proving the lack of Moroccan nationality). This argument was finally accepted and, in September 2013, Ibrahim was at last granted a permanent residence permit on the grounds of statelessness.
However, despite this positive outcome, the Slovak authorities still tend to overlook the problem of non-returnable stateless people – either ignoring their irregular situation or “tolerating” their presence in the country – but without granting them any long-term residence permit and therefore a dignified life perspective. Part of the problem is surely related to the absence of an integrated statelessness determination procedure in Slovakia. In general, the number of stateless people in Slovakia is quite low in comparison to other categories of migrants and foreigners (refugee-assisting NGOs have only been in contact with a few dozens of such clients). Yet, the difficulties these persons face should not be ignored. Slovakia has made an important step forward by defining statelessness as a ground for a right to residence. Yet, a lot remains to be done in terms of creating a proper and well-regulated statelessness determination framework, learning from and further developing good practices of other countries. This will help people like Ibrahim to start a new life after years of legal limbo and marginalisation.
Katarína Fajnorová is a lawyer at the Human Rights League based in Bratislava, Slovakia. The Human Rights League is a member of ENS, and over the next six months will deliver a range of activities in support of the ENS campaign to protect stateless persons in Europe For more information about the campaign and activities by other ENS members across Europe please monitor the ENS website at www.statelessness.eu