The shocking treatment of one of our clients - Dr Sager Al-Anezi - highlights the importance of new analysis published this week as part of the #StatelessnessINDEX by Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) and the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) on the treatment of stateless people in Bulgaria. This highlights that despite the recent introduction of a legal route to identify stateless people in 2017, there are considerable deficiencies that put individuals at risk of human rights violations and which require immediate attention.
While Bulgaria is one of only a few European countries with a procedure that allows them to identify stateless individuals (you can read previous posts on the ENS blog about the introduction of a statelessness determination procedure into law here), crucially, the law currently does not guarantee recognised stateless people protection status, legal residence or other rights such as to work, family reunion or a travel document – leaving individuals condemned to live on the margins of society and denied the opportunity to contribute as citizens. There are ‘de-facto’ exclusion clauses in Bulgarian law, according to which a refusal may be issued to an applicant for stateless status who is staying irregularly or whose uninterrupted lawful residence in Bulgaria has lasted for less than 5 years. Bulgaria has made reservations on Article 27 (“Identity papers”) and Article 28 (“Travel Documents”) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, according to which a “stateless person travel document” will be issued to holders of permanent or long-term residence only.
In practice, currently only people who already have permanent or long-term residence in Bulgaria gain any rights from being recognised as a stateless person in the country. They are entitled to a travel document.
The StatelessnessINDEX shows that gaps in Bulgarian law, such as the absence of procedural rights and the lack of a requirement to identify a country of removal prior to detaining someone means that people without a nationality can face long periods in detention without a realistic prospect of leaving the country.
Witnessing the detention of people who have applied under the new statelessness determination procedure has been disheartening and damaged much-needed trust in the authorities.
The story of Dr Sager Al-Anezi
One such person is Dr Sager Al-Anezi, a stateless bidoon represented by FAR, and who’s story was this week covered in a news report by Thomson Reuters. Born in Kuwait he was left without nationality and no chance to go to University, but he was able to obtain a passport from a third country, with Kuwait's approval, which allowed him to study abroad and led him to Bulgaria. He was initially given permission to stay in Bulgaria while he graduated in medicine and pursued training to become a heart surgeon. But when he tried to renew that passport the third country refused and he decided to apply for formal recognition as a stateless person in Bulgaria.
After three months without any information he went to check on the progress of his case, and to his surprise, was given notification of a rejection dated two weeks earlier, and, a detention order. With no country willing to accept him he was locked in detention for six weeks and only released on Friday following the media scrutiny his case received. Both FAR and ENS worked to bring the case to the attention of Thomson Reuters journalist Emma Batha, who decided to expose Sager’s story in conjunction with the publication of the StatelessnessINDEX profile on Bulgaria. Both together illustrate the serious shortcomings of a legal procedure supposedly set up to help stateless people, that is in need of urgent reform.
Sager is now out of detention, but remains without any legal status and his future remains uncertain while FAR continues to pursue a number of legal avenues to regularise his stay in Bulgaria. While the release in his case was a welcome development, it reveals a number of systemic deficiencies in the protection of stateless persons in Bulgaria. In the first place, unlike asylum seekers, applicants for statelessness status do not qualify for any reception conditions and temporary residence rights in Bulgaria. Secondly, detention is almost automatically imposed to stateless persons regardless of the fact that their removal order does not state the destination country of return and thus there are no reasonable prospects of removal. No alternatives to detention are examined, even when there is no reasonable risk of absconding. Thirdly, Dr. Sager was also served a decision for discontinuation of his statelessness determination procedure, because according to the Bulgarian authorities he did not present an explicit document stating that he is stateless. Burden and standard of proof are serious issues in the statelessness determination procedure in Bulgaria. Fourthly, the case of Dr. Sager falls within the exclusion clauses regarding irregularly staying migrants in Bulgaria, because he could not renew his passport from the third country after it expired and thus lost his lawful residence. In Sager’s words “I've been treated worse than a criminal, but I don't know what my crime is. How can you lock people up simply for having no citizenship?" More than 130 stateless people have been detained in Bulgaria in the last decade, but the real number is probably higher as stateless people are often wrongly ascribed a nationality (see the ENS and FAR #LockedinLimbo report for more information on the issue of stateless people in detention in Bulgaria).
We sincerely hope that Sager’s story and the #StatelessnessINDEX will encourage the Bulgarian Government to rethink the way it responds to statelessness and to make the necessary adjustments to the statelessness determination procedure it introduced in 2017.
A glimpse of hope is seen in a new draft law introduced by the Government in the Parliament on 19 February 2019. It envisages the possibility for persons recognized as stateless to obtain a residence permit. The proposed provision reads:
“A person who has been granted status of stateless person in the Republic of Bulgaria who does not meet the conditions for permanent or long-term residence on the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria may be allowed a continuous residence permit with a term of up to one year in accordance with the implementing regulation of the law.”
Such a change would truly give content and meaning to the recognition of the status of a stateless persons.
While the introduction of a procedure to identify stateless people in 2017 was a welcome first step, further reforms are urgently required if the promise of protection is not to be illusory. While we do not underestimate the challenge of securing reform, hopefully the very welcome fact of Sager’s release demonstrates at least some recognition by the government of current failings in the system. We will continue to work closely with UNHCR, ENS and the Government, using the Index as a vehicle for change. Above all we hope that Sager and other stateless persons in his situation in Bulgaria will soon be given legal status and the opportunity to re-build their lives.