A few weeks ago, a group of 20 stateless activists and community representatives from different countries in Europe came together with ENS’ support, in a series of online sessions. Across four days, we discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on stateless people in Europe and what needs to be done to address these impacts and found many areas of shared concern. It was evident from our discussions that stateless individuals and communities are already on the ground doing crucial work to support stateless people, but that COVID-19 and national response measures are having a big impact on stateless people, and will require solutions beyond what individuals and communities are able or should be expected to provide for themselves. Working with ENS, we have turned our discussion into a position paper with recommendations for action from different stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and stateless communities, to better protect stateless people during the pandemic and beyond.
How is COVID-19 impacting stateless people in Europe?
As a group, we talked about how people without proof of nationality, either because they are stateless or lack identity documents, are being excluded from relief packages and access to health care in different countries across the region. We heard how similar difficulties in accessing basic rights are affecting undocumented stateless migrants, Romani and other minority groups at risk of statelessness, and stateless refugees in different parts of Europe. In some countries, access to healthcare is made dependent on having certain identity documents or residence status, which many stateless people do not have. In the Netherlands, some children in families affected by statelessness are facing language or technological barriers to accessing home schooling. Parents may not know how to use laptops, may not have reliable access to the internet, or be able to speak the language of their children’s school lessons.
There is also a lack of accessible, translated information on COVID-19 and lockdown regulations for stateless people in some countries, as well as delays to applications for stateless status and other immigration procedures, due to authorities providing limited services under COVID-19 restrictions. In the UK, for example, decision-making under the statelessness determination procedure was placed on hold before resuming in late April. This puts stateless people at heightened risk of being excluded from healthcare and other basic rights during the pandemic.
It is clear that COVID-19 is being used as an excuse for discrimination and racial profiling against minority groups, who are often already among the most marginalised in society, particularly if they lack civil documentation and cannot evidence their citizenship. Increased policing of and violence towards Romani communities across Europe is particularly concerning.
Roma in North Macedonia face further marginalisation
I am witnessing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on stateless people or those at risk in my own country, North Macedonia, where most relief and support for COVID-19 is dependent on having the right identity documents. Over the last two years, the Government of North Macedonia identified 750 people who are not registered in the civil registry and are at risk of statelessness during a national registration campaign. The majority are Roma, and there are likely to be more as this number reflects those who came forward to identify themselves to the Government. New legislation was introduced in January to grant a ‘special civil status’ and issue documentation to this group. The new law is problematic because it does not resolve their lack of nationality. Nevertheless, it is meant to provide access to basic rights including healthcare, but the Government still has not implemented it. These people still have not been issued with temporary documents, and so cannot access healthcare services or other social and economic rights during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 situation has worsened the socio-economic situation of people across the country, endangering their livelihoods, with the Roma population particularly impacted, and those without identity documentation, even more. Roma in the Bair neighbourhood in Bitola, where my organisation Bairska Svetlina works to support the inclusion and integration of the Roma community, face an inadequate distribution of COVID-19 humanitarian aid and measures proposed by the Government. This is due to a lack of coordination between the Municipality, the Center for Social Affairs and the Red Cross, and the dependency of access to Government support on identity documents, leaving many without civil documentation or at risk of statelessness excluded. Access to information in the Bair neighbourhood is also limited – something that we identified as an issue for stateless people across various countries in Europe during the online sessions - due to frequent power outages in the neighbourhood and poor, limited access to the Internet and computer technology.
Working together to address the needs of stateless people
When we came together as individuals and communities affected by statelessness a few weeks ago, we talked about what response is needed across Europe to address the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on stateless people. We identified a number of recommended actions for different stakeholders to implement both immediately and in the long term to ensure stateless people have guaranteed access to rights and information, effectively tackle discrimination, address barriers to legal procedures and free legal support, and to recognise and prioritise statelessness as an issue. Across the region and in my own community in Bitola, we need to see greater efforts to ensure that Roma communities, many of whom are at risk of statelessness, are included in society and have equal access to basic needs and protection, especially in such times of crisis. In North Macedonia, as part of the Roma movement Avaya, we have urged the relevant Ministries and the Registry Office to effectively implement the law and ensure that those not already registered in the birth registry are recorded, issued with identity documents, and can access basic rights, including healthcare.
From my own work on the ground and our group sessions online, I know that stateless individuals and communities are working tirelessly to respond to stateless people’s needs during the current crisis. Stateless individuals and communities have always been pro-active in organising and creating solutions to the problems they are confronted with. While this provides a coping mechanism for stateless people experiencing marginalisation, COVID-19 requires solutions beyond what individuals and communities are able or should be expected to provide for themselves. As we face the fallout of a global public health crisis it is more important than ever to be led in decision-making by those impacted on what solutions are needed in response. We hope that this position paper provides a starting point for the views and experiences of people affected by statelessness to be prioritised and reflected in decision-making and response implementation during COVID-19 and beyond. The only way to overcome the crisis is to work together in solidarity.