The Halina Nieć Legal Aid Center (HNLAC), established in 2002 aims at promoting human rights by providing legal aid to those at risk of social exclusion and discrimination, continuing the legacy of Dr Halina Nieć, a researcher, human rights activist and the founder of the Human Rights Center at the Jagiellonian University. Since 2003 the HNLAC, acting as UNHCR implementing partner in Poland, engages in protecting and assisting refugees and asylum seekers by monitoring our authorities’ adherence to its international legal obligations, conducting trainings on human rights, awareness-raising, advocacy and last but not least providing our beneficiaries with legal aid and assistance.
Visiting centers for refugees and Guarded Centers for Foreigners throughout Poland on a regular basis as well as counselling our beneficiaries in our office, we met with stateless people, often being struck by their stories of despair and hopelessness when trying to receive state protection. Often finding ourselves unable to help them within the existing legal framework we started to dwell on the idea that urgent changes were required, at the same time knowing that for many statelessness remains an abstract legal concept. We realized that there were no exhaustive researches on statelessness in Poland, no reliable data as to the number of stateless persons staying on our territory and the issue did not attract the attention it deserved either from the authorities or civil society. Even though Poland took steps aimed at reducing statelessness by actions such as introducing the new law on citizenship, not enough attention has been given to those already deprived of a nationality bond, either formally or by lack of diplomatic assistance with regard to obtaining identity or travel documents and in particular that Poland lacks a dedicated statelessness determination procedure. Given the upcoming 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons it was especially of concern that Poland remains one of the few EU countries (together with Malta, Cyprus and Estonia) still not a party to neither of the UN Statelessness Conventions, which are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people.
Therefore in 2013 we started a project which we called “The Invisible – Stateless Persons in Poland”, which was possible thanks to funding support received from the Batory Foundation. Within our project we engaged in research, advocacy and awareness raising. We gathered the existing statistical data, verified the existing legal framework, met with decision-makers and analyzed the case-files to learn how the law is operating. Maybe most importantly though, we spoke to stateless persons to learn about what we now call the human face of statelessness and make the stateless persons visible and heard.
Even though the problem of statelessness might have been perceived by some as non-existent in Poland, we learned that there are in fact approximately 8800 persons of undocumented nationality staying on our territory, 2020 of which are considered stateless. Only during the last two and a half years it was impossible for the Border Guard Headquarters to confirm the identity and nationality of nearly 800 people, who were therefore thrown into a legal limbo. These people can regularize their stay in Poland by obtaining a ‘tolerated stay’ permit. However, the number of those who managed to pursue the procedure with positive effect remains considerably low (inter alia due to evidentiary difficulties). The tolerated stay procedure is not specifically tailored to the stateless persons’ needs. Furthermore, while asylum-seekers are provided with basic social assistance and health care within the RSD procedure, those applying for tolerated stay are deprived of it, while the tolerated stay procedure is often time-consuming. Therefore, stateless persons in Poland are functioning on the margins of society, at risk of administrative detention, being deprived of their basic rights, not being able to take a job, benefit from social assistance and public healthcare, get married or obtain travel or identity documents. As one of the persons we spoke to told us with a lingering smile of regret, even my cat got a passport, You know, while I’m deprived of it for nearly 15 years now.
Having heard testimonies from stateless persons, while researching statelessness issues, we also focused on awareness raising and advocacy by establishing a coalition of national NGOs, gathering signatures under a petition addressed to the Polish government on the necessity of acceding to the UN Stateless Conventions, and joining Amnesty International Poland with a targeted letter writing campaign. We also voiced the needs of stateless persons on regional radio shows and by organizing press conference to promote the publication of the “Invisible – Stateless Persons in Poland” report, covering the main findings of the research together with recommendations for the Polish government. The report’s executive summary together with the written NGOs coalition’s stand on the need to accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions was disseminated among the authorities and decisions makers, our main stance being that Poland should accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions and secure the stateless persons rights by introducing a stateless determination procedure, at the same time implementing safeguards against on-going detention of those whose return to the country of origin can not be deemed realistic.
All our efforts undertaken within the project begin to bring first positive results. Already since January 2014 three interpellations were submitted by the Deputies to both the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, concerning the possibility of acceding to the UN Statelessness Conventions. Furthermore the statelessness issue has attracted media attention and several articles were published so far on the problems that stateless persons face in Poland and the need to secure their basic rights.
Taking into consideration the recent pledge by the Delegation of the EU on behalf of the EU Member States, the on-going work with regard to the statement on the possibility to accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions mentioned in the Polish Migration Policy, as well as this year’s 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention we believe that now is the moment to bring about real and lasting change in order to drastically contribute towards improving the situation of stateless persons staying on our territory. Therefore we very much welcome the ENS Campaign to improve protection for stateless persons in Europe, wishing to take an active part in this campaign by collecting the testimonies of stateless persons and further advocacy, benefiting from our ENS partners’ expertise and support. Dedicated to the idea, that every human being is entitled to the full enjoyment of basic human rights, we believe that acceding to the Conventions not only obliges states to effectively tackle statelessness but also constitutes a significant message addressed to the international community on the need secure stateless people's rights.