The right to work, at least in principle, is considered a fundamental human right; it is enshrined in Article 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in Article 15 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. More importantly, the right to engage in decent work is also widely seen as an important factor of human dignity and self-esteem.
Stateless persons living in the EU in general do not enjoy the extensive benefits of a decent, legal, wage-earning employment in the formal labour market of their host country; their statelessness often prevents them from accessing this basic right on top of other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. In the absence of the protection of an effective nationality, stateless individuals are often subjected to marginalization and discrimination, facing almost insurmountable difficulties when seeking legal employment.
Stateless persons, often lacking recognition in the absence and/or severe shortcomings of status determination procedures (by the time of writing, only France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Spain and the United Kingdom have put in place statelessness related protection regimes in the EU – you can also check the ENS Statelessness INDEX for more information) are typically excluded from the formal labour market and thus obliged to work off the books. Similar to unrecognized asylum seekers, stateless individuals are mostly employed in the ‘secondary labour market’ with low wages, limited career opportunities, and precarious working conditions. This leaves them vulnerable to destitution, human trafficking, prostitution, and impedes them from becoming self-reliant in their host society.
Where is the gap?
Looking at the EU, it may be assumed that Member States have very different approaches to this issue. Although Article 17 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (ratified by 24 EU Member States) acknowledges stateless individual’s right to wage-earning employment, in the absence of statelessness determination procedure stateless persons are seldomly identified and recognized as such. This precludes them from obtaining a residence permit which is generally a key document to engage in legal employment in EU Member States. But the problem goes deeper than that.
To demonstrate some of the most important inconsistencies related to this issue in the EU, I found that in some EU countries:
(1) Even recognized stateless persons may not have an automatic right to stay in the country that carried out their status determination which impedes them from entering the EU labour market;
(2) Stateless individual’s access to the labour market largely depends on the type of residence permit which they are granted;
(3) Stateless persons do not receive a residence permit upon recognition which, as mentioned above, is vital to engage in legal employment;
(4) Recognized stateless persons may receive a residence permit which, however, does not grant its holder free access to the labour market, as a special working permit is also needed in order to be able to work legally.
To give a few examples of the different approaches of EU Member States to the employment of stateless persons, for instance, in Belgium in case a stateless person is granted a certificate of registration, they gain automatic access to the job market without having to obtain a work permit first. In Austria, Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and Slovenia recognized stateless persons enjoy equal access to the job market as legally staying third-country nationals, depending on the type of the granted residence permit. This may comply with Article 67(2) of the Lisbon Treaty (providing that stateless persons shall be treated as third-country nationals in the EU) but does not reflect on the myriad vulnerabilities of stateless persons.
This ambiguity and lack of consistency in the practice of EU Member States can easily put stateless people in a legal limbo. Also, not having a real chance to gain recognition and thus a residence permit and unimpeded access to the job market may constitute a reason for stateless persons seeking recognition and a decent job to migrate to other EU Member States, for instance, to Italy, Spain or the UK that do not only have status determination procedures but also provide unimpeded access to their labour market for stateless persons which therefore may constitute a pull factor for stateless individuals.
The right to work in Europe should also be better guaranteed under the European Social Charter which mentions stateless persons in its Appendix, providing that they should be treated equally with nationals and with nationals of other Contracting Parties relating to issues covered by the Social Charter, including education, labour legislation, fiscal charges and access to courts. In contrast, stateless persons are generally granted a limited number of family benefits, social security, social and medical assistance, as well as other basic social rights, including family benefits in European countries.
Further to providing stateless persons with unimpeded access to the labour market, individualized support services should be put in place in each EU Member State to promote their social inclusion. These support services should build on the assessed qualifications, formal and informal skills and competences of stateless persons in their pursuit of work opportunities, as well as adequately reflect on gender related challenges. In this respect I suggest to explore the potential of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) which allows for the implementation of projects aiming for the (labour) integration of stateless persons beyond TCNs. To give an example, the Budapest-based Artemisszió Foundation has been implementing a project named ‘Skills On’ promoting the labour market integration of TCNs and stateless persons through skills assessment, intercultural trainings, job skills trainings, mentoring and language training, financed through the AMIF. In the framework of the project, the Foundation also helped a stateless girl of Tibetan origin to find an internship in Budapest through skills assessment and mentoring services.
To conclude, stateless persons should be provided with direct and automatic access to the labour market in every EU Member State and should be assisted extensively in their pursuit of employment through individualized support services, including mentoring and skills assessment which would greatly enhance their social inclusion, as well as their chance of self-reliance in the long haul. Having due regard to the widespread absence and considerable shortcomings of existing statelessness determination procedures in the EU, their lack of formal recognition as stateless persons, which might as well be the reason for their illegal stay, may not constitute a reason for denying their right to work. Quite the opposite, unimpeded access to the labour market in EU Member States should be guaranteed to these individuals without having to first obtain a residence permit. These measures would not only discourage stateless individuals’ intra-EU displacement but would also allow them to become self-reliant, contributing and esteemed members of European societies.