Unione Italiana Apolidi: the first stateless-led organization in Italy

Armando Augello Cupi, President of Unione Italiana Apolidi
/ 6 mins read

In the global context, statelessness affects millions of people around the world, with many more at risk of statelessness. In Italy, according to UNHCR there are between 3,000 to 15,000 stateless people, though data from the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (ISTAT) put the number at only 552 formally recognised as stateless. Unione Italiana Apolidi is a non-profit association with the aim of improving conditions for stateless people in Italy. 

Unione Italiana Apolidi

One of the main causes of statelessness in Italy is linked to the fact that many people did not acquire citizenship following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a situation that set the stage for the subsequent transmission of statelessness from generation to generation.

Although statelessness affects thousands of people, Italy is one of the few countries in Europe that has a procedure for determining statelessness. This was made possible by the fact that Italy ratified the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, the problems that recognised and non-recognised stateless persons face every day in Italy are countless and often very complicated to deal with alone.

In previous years, there has been a lack of representation in Italy to protect stateless people and to illustrate the situation of statelessness in Italy directly narrated by stateless people themselves. During one of the periodic meetings that UNHCR organises in which it invites stateless persons to tell their thoughts on this situation and their opinion, there was a chance to meet several stateless persons with different backgrounds but with the same problem, that of being 'invisible'. In subsequent informal meetings, we came to the conclusion that there was a need to create something that was missing in Italy: an organisation led by stateless persons for stateless persons, which could fully understand the problems and difficulties of those who live in that condition.

In 2022, UNIA (Unione Italiana Apolidi) won the “PartecipAzione” call for tenders supported by UNHCR and INTERSOS, which allowed the association to consolidate and create a website, social platforms, expand its membership and hold a public event at the Foreign Press Room. Members of the association include stateless persons, former stateless persons, non-recognised stateless persons, Italian citizens and anyone who wants to make a contribution to help others cope with this situation. In the same year, UNIA won the UNHCR 'Refugee-led Innovation Fund' with a project selected out of 1800 applications from 18 countries, of which only about 15 project proposals were selected, including our scoring highly against the selection criteria.

In 2023, the Unione Italiana Apolidi will carry out the 'inVISIBLE' project with funds from the Refugee-led Innovation Fund. It consists of bringing empowerment to stateless persons who constitute UNIA, through public speech figures, so that they can hone their skills in different interdisciplinary fields. This will be later functional to the development of a toolkit, with the support of a professional, which will enable UNIA members to conduct workshops on statelessness in universities in Italy. The aim is to increase research on statelessness by professors, students and researchers, so that greater visibility on this issue is created and with the objective that the data developed can be used in future social policies. Finally, the Unione Italiana Apolidi will award a prize for the most innovative dissertation on statelessness.

Non-Recognized Stateless People in Italy

Suffice it to say that a non-recognised stateless people don’t have access to employment, often lack access to education opportunities, have limited access to the welfare system, cannot rent a house, and risk being detained and receiving a deportation order. Non-recognized stateless people in Italy (and beyond) are effectively ghosts who are denied the possibility of living a 'normal' life on a par with that of an Italian citizen.

In addition to this, to make an application under the administrative statelessness determination procedure the applicant needs to possess a birth certificate. We need to take into account that in several African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries children often grow up without a birth certificate, which in itself can lead to an increased risk of statelessness. Finally, there are two essential factors to be taken into account: the first is that very often stateless persons do not know that they are stateless. Many people do not know about their condition of invisibility until they happen to hear about it and self identify as lacking a nationality. The second is that due to the complicated and bureaucratic nature of the determination, stateless people often do not know how to apply for status, and many can’t afford a lawyer, as there is no entitlement to free legal aid. Demoralised by the situation and extended timeframe (it takes a minimum of 2 or 3 years), they decide to continue living without status.

Recognized Stateless People in Italy

There are 552 stateless persons recognised with this status, as mentioned above, according to data from the Italian Institute of Statistics. These people recognized as stateless have the possibility of leading a life almost equal to that of a citizen, yet they still encounter various difficulties on a daily basis. Stateless persons in Italy do not have the right to take part in the elections or run for public office, cannot take part in public national job since they are not Italian and they are also limited when it comes to travel outside the European Union.

The obstacles faced are further compounded by ignorance on the part of public officials, operators, authorities and all those who work closely with stateless people. This creates a number of daily challenges that a stateless person has to cope with. Is a stateless person entitled to a pension? What happens if I want to open a bank account but my citizenship as a 'stateless person' is missing from the list? A stateless girl who is a member of the Unione Italiana Apolidi (Italian Stateless Union) happened, for instance, to go to the Municipality to deposit her marriage certificate, with a stateless travel document. She handed over this document, but the officer on the other side of the desk, having never seen such a document before, rejected the marriage application, thinking the document was false. She had to postpone the wedding and was only able to marry several months later with the help of a lawyer.

Acquisition of Italian Citizenship for a Stateless Person

In order for Italy to reconfirm itself as a country leading when it comes to the protection of stateless people, a faster and more effective naturalisation procedure for stateless persons is needed, as this is the main solution to put an end to the serious violation of human rights linked to statelessness. According to the joint advocacy document of Tavolo Apolidia, many stateless children born in Italy who could acquire Italian citizenship at birth face several obstacles in demonstrating that they have not acquired and cannot acquire the nationality of either of their parents.

Citizenship is crucial for the full enjoyment of the rights the state should guarantee. However, the procedure for a stateless person to apply for Italian citizenship can be complicated and lengthy. The stateless person must be resident on Italian territory continuously for 5 years, be in possession of a tax declaration for the last 3 years, which must range from a minimum of € 8,263.31 for individual income, increased up to € 11,362.05 taxable income in the presence of a dependent spouse and a further € 516 for each dependent child. Applicants must also demonstrate a B1 level of Italian language. The cost to initiate the procedure is 250 EUR, and there may be additional costs for stamp fees or other expenses. The application is decided only after 3 years have passed. Many of these conditions severely limit the ability of stateless people to regularise their status.

Another restrictive factor is the timeframe in which applications are decided on. In order to be granted stateless status, an applicant must wait a minimum period of 2 or 3 years to meets the requirements, after which 5 years must pass before he or she can apply for Italian citizenship. Finally, 3 years must pass for this application to be accepted. In total for a stateless person to be able to enjoy the rights that come with citizenship at least 10 years must pass. This is a demoralising period of time that leads many people without citizenship to choose not to even venture down this obstacle-laden road.

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