Navigating intersecting statelessness: Syrian Kurds in Europe

Thomas McGee (PhD researcher at Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne Law School) and Haqqi Bahram (PhD researcher at REMESO - Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society, Linköping University)
/ 5 mins read

This blog examines the experiences of stateless Syrian Kurds in Europe by looking at how they’ve navigated asylum bureaucracies and their specific experiences of social alienation.

Behind walls
'Behind Walls' installation by Kurdish artist Khadija Baker reflects the daily reality for stateless Kurds from Syria across an interconnected, yet scattered, diaspora. Karsh-Masson Gallery, Ottawa.

Until 2011, around 300,000 stateless Kurds in Syria comprised one of the largest groups in the world affected by de jure statelessness (defined in the 1954 Convention). Deprived of citizenship in Syria, these individuals have had complex experiences of statelessness due to another intersecting meaning of collective statelessness affecting Kurds at large. While the de jure definition applies to this sub-group of Kurds in Syria, it can be argued that all Kurds are stateless in the sense that they belong to a ‘stateless nation’. Such an experience of ‘double statelessness’ is shared by members of several other groups belonging to states that have not received fully international recognition, such as Palestinians and Sahrawis.

Back in 1962, the Syrian state held an exceptional census that discriminated to strip around 120,000 Syrian Kurds of their citizenship, rendering them stateless overnight. For decades, they remained in a cycle of exclusion and were divided according to the imposed labels of ajnabi (meaning ’foreigner’ in Arabic) and maktoum (meaning ’unregistered’). This remained the case until the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 when a change in law allowed those registered as ajnabi (but not as maktoum) to naturalize.

Displacement to Europe

During the conflict, millions of Syria’s population - including Kurds (both stateless and citizens) - sought asylum abroad: largely in neighboring countries, but also in Europe. Many stateless Syrian Kurds in Europe, including those who arrived before 2011, struggled to prove their statelessness. They had to paradoxically prove a connection to a home country that never recognized them except as “foreigners”, “illegal residents” or “infiltrators”. This dynamic could be observed both while they were on the move and later, especially within asylum systems of Europe. Often struggling for recognition of their statelessness, they had to navigate a myriad of bureaucratic obstacles. This includes policies that fail to engage with the reality of statelessness as well as insensitive approaches within bureaucratic architectures serving reception and asylum processes. The failure to identify that they are stateless in the first place often then results in situations of legal and administrative limbo and structural exclusion.

In view of Syria being the country of origin for the largest number of asylum seekers in the EU since 2013, as well as having a large historic stateless population (including stateless Kurds), there was an evident need to generate an evidence base in order to protect the rights of stateless refugees and asylum seekers. As a response, the European Network of Statelessness and partners, within their ‘Stateless Journeys’ project on the relationship between statelessness and forced migration in Europe, produced a report tracing the migratory and asylum experiences of stateless Kurds and Palestinians from Syria. The report confirms how stateless Kurds have often experienced difficulties navigating the bureaucracies of the countries to which they had arrived. Such systems often fail to comprehend the complexities and lived realities of what being stateless means for those directly affected, resulting in misidentification of statelessness, discrimination, limited freedom of movement, and obstacles to inclusion in initiatives intended to provide durable solutions.

For stateless Syrian Kurds, there is often additional confusion around their legal status. Many stateless Kurds report struggling to convince officials of their statelessness as immigration and asylum authorities may label them as ‘disputed nationality cases.’ The methodologies used by the authorities to ‘determine’ the Country of Origin of these individuals are often questionable, such as over-reliance upon controversial language analysis exercises. Stateless Kurds are often recorded as of ‘unknown’ nationality rather than ‘stateless’, leading one such individual to describe himself as ‘a victim of both Syria and Europe as a person holding no nationality in this world.’

Indefinitely stateless

Naturalisation and access to citizenship are assumed to be – at least partial – solutions to the legal limbo in which stateless people often find themselves. However, naturalisation first requires the individual to establish his or her legal identity - often challenging in practice. This can exclude from naturalisation the very people who arguably need it the most.

Following the large influx of refugees to western Europe from 2015, many stateless Syrian Kurds also faced additional problems due to newly introduced ‘temporary’ asylum laws and associated residency policies, which (e.g. in Denmark and Sweden) can lead to ‘indefinite statelessness’. Inaccess to naturalisation procedures due to their status according to the law effectively deprives stateless asylum seekers and refugees of a pathway to end their statelessness. These barriers to durable solutions consequently can add to the sense of social exclusion that many stateless Kurds had experienced prior to displacement.  

Social dilemmas of statelessness

Even for stateless Kurds who have managed to naturalise, social challenges and dilemmas of belonging may persist. Regardless of citizenship status, diaspora Kurds often struggle with feelings of alienation as members of a stateless nation - conceptualised as ‘social statelessness’. The social dimensions of statelessness for Syrian Kurds are arguably further entrenched by the several levels of their statelessness: the legacy of de jure statelessness, lack of belonging in host countries and absence of a Kurdish (home) state intersect as everyday social dilemmas for (formerly) stateless Syrian Kurds in Europe. This can lead to ambiguous self-identifications with the concept of statelessness and its associated systems of protection.

Sensitivity to intersecting notions of statelessness

While working for legal ‘solutions’, advocates must engage with the layers and nuances of intersecting statelessness for communities affected by complex forms of statelessness beyond the de jure definition alone, such as Palestinians, Sahrawis and Kurds of Syria. As statelessness is in essence a political issue, relating to multiple structures of power and exclusion, it is therefore critical that those working on the issue also sensitively navigate these realities. 

The contents of this blog were originally published as a full article in French in an issue of Plein Droit journal dedicated to statelessness: Vol 128, ‘Apatridies’, March 2021:

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