A life in limbo: Refused asylum seekers at risk of statelessness

Catherine Blanchard, Senior Researcher, and Sarah Joy, Researcher - British Red Cross
/ 6 mins read

“They let me live like – between. I can’t go back and I can’t live here… If you die, nobody cares really.” (Walid*, Algeria)

New research published by the British Red Cross explores the bleak existence facing a group of people in the UK who have been denied asylum, but cannot be returned to their country of origin. This is largely due to not being able to establish their identity in order to obtain new travel documents.  Seven of the fifteen refused asylum seekers interviewed for the report find themselves somewhere along the Statelessness application process.

Samir’s story

Samir* is 36 years old and comes from Algeria. He left Algeria during the Algerian civil war. He was 14 years old at the time and both his parents were dead. Samir moved to Belgium and ended up in a children’s home. After a few months, he ran away from there. He lived in Belgium for 17 years and came to the UK in June 2011. He claimed asylum in June 2011 and was refused in July. He became appeal rights exhausted in January 2012.

For over three years, Samir has been trying to leave the UK. He has applied for Assisted Voluntary Return twice. Both of these applications expired as he was unable to get a travel document from the Algerian consulate within the three-month validity of the application. The Home Office refused to grant him an extension of time to do this.

Samir has been to the Algerian consulate five times to apply for a travel document to return to Algeria. Samir has completed the travel document application and, on one occasion, the Red Cross arranged for a volunteer from a local organisation to accompany him. She provided photos and a written statement of the visit.

The Algerian consulate will not assist Samir, as he does not have any Algerian identity documents. They advised that he should return to the consulate with a completed and signed application form, photos, travel tickets provided by the Home Office and, in the absence of documentation, he must provide two witness declarations from Algerian nationals, registered at the consulate in London, testifying that he is an Algerian national. Samir does not know any Algerian nationals, so it has not been possible for him to find a witness to confirm his Algerian nationality. The British Red Cross has tried to assist him with finding witnesses, but none of their enquiries has been successful.

Samir feels that life is passing him by:

“I am not young. Life is going very quick. I came into this country, I was 31 years. Now I am 36. Yes, it's five years now here in England.”

Samir is currently working on a Statelessness application.

Life is bleak

We found that life for refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned is bleak. Eleven of the 15 people we interviewed receive no financial support from the state. With no money and no right to work, they struggle to survive and rely on charities for food and clothing. Most are homeless and constantly move around, relying on friends and night shelters for a place to sleep. For some, the only option is to sleep rough.

Above all, living in limbo with no control over their future has a profound impact on the mental and physical health of refused asylum seekers. Nearly half of those who took part in our research had considered suicide.

Struggling to establish identity

All 15 of our refused asylum seekers are experiencing documentation issues.

Common reasons for our participants not being able to establish identity include:

  • Where a person has no national documents, or any other formal ID, through never having had any
  • Where a person has spent most of their life outside their country of origin because of war or unrest
  • Where a person has moved between two countries during their childhood.

The risk of statelessness

Refused asylum seekers who remain in limbo in the UK because of difficulties with proving nationality or being re-documented are at risk of statelessness. The European Network on Statelessness uses the term “at risk of statelessness” to refer to individuals who are “in a place of vulnerability that can escalate into statelessness”. Section 4.6.1 of the Home Office instruction on statelessness recognises that “where an individual has provided evidence that they have made an application to the national authority only to find more and more evidence requested by the State in question, combined with long delays”, this “in practice amounts to a denial of recognition”.

The majority of those who make a Statelessness application in the UK are refused asylum seekers. A freedom of information request to the Home Office showed that from April 2013, when the UK statelessness procedure was introduced, to 30 June 2016, a total of 1,662 people lodged a Statelessness application. Of these, 1,096 had previously applied for asylum.

Seven of the 15 refused asylum seekers we spoke to find themselves somewhere on the statelessness spectrum. Some are considering making, or are already working on, a Statelessness application. One participant submitted a Statelessness application in 2016, and is awaiting the outcome; two have had their Statelessness applications refused.

Our call on the UK government

Refused asylum seekers who, through no fault of their own, cannot be returned to their country of origin, risk falling into crisis. Many remain in the UK for extended periods of time. The Red Cross believes it is inhumane to confine these people to live in destitution for years, with no recognition of the suffering they face. We call on the UK government to grant discretionary leave to remain, including a right to work, to appeal rights exhausted individuals who cannot, after a period of 12 months, be re-documented, or there is a barrier to return that is beyond their control, and they are complying with the system.

More about our research

Our Can’t Stay, Can’t Go report is based on in-depth interviews with 15 refused asylum seekers who cannot return to their country of origin and six Red Cross refugee support staff that work with this group of people. We reviewed existing literature and quantitative data and also asked our refused asylum seekers’ permission to review their case records, where available. This enabled a more-detailed understanding of their situation.

The countries of origin of those interviewed are Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Eleven were male and four female, with their ages ranging from 25 to 49. The amount of time for which our refused asylum seekers have been in the UK ranged from 18 months to almost 17 years. Five people have been here for more than ten years – two for close to 17 years, two for 13 years and one for 11 years. Only five of the 15 have been here for less than five years.

[*] All names have been changed to preserve anonymity. A model was used for the photo that accompanies this post.

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