ENS caught up with Valeria Ilareva, the Head Lawyer and the Chairperson of the Foundation for Access to Rights, a Bulgaria based civil society organisation and a longstanding ENS member. Valeria has more than 18 years of experience in the field of migration and asylum law. We spoke about the recent introduction of a statelessness determination procedure in Bulgaria, the importance of commuications work and the impact of the government's COVID-19 measures on marginalised groups.
The Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) is a longstanding member of ENS. Your work in Bulgaria is centred around addressing systemic issues facing people in accessing their basic human rights. How does statelessness fit into this work?
Stateless people are explicitly pointed out in FAR’s founding statute as one of our priority target groups. When we established FAR in 2013, I already had over 10 years of experience working on migration and refugee law and I knew stateless people were one of the most vulnerable groups when it came to accessing their basic rights. My first encounter with statelessness was the prolonged and seemingly endless detention of stateless individuals in Bulgaria’s removal detention centres. To give you an example, as a lawyer I had a client – Mr. A.A. - who was held in immigration detention for a total of seven years - from 2005 until 2012. The feeling of powerlessness from a legal standpoint and the motivation to advocate for a change to the status-quo is familiar to many human rights lawyers. I felt the same also as a lawyer of Mr Said Kadzoev, a stateless person, in whose case the Court of Justice of the European Union’s first preliminary ruling on the EU Return Directive, interpreting the concept of a ‘reasonable prospect for removal’. Thus, naturally, one of FAR’s first decisions after its establishment was to become a member of the European Network on Statelessness, which is a community of allies who support each other in advancing social justice for stateless people. We have been privileged to become closely involved in ENS’ activities, which has contributed to improving our standing at the national level, both in terms of strategic litigation and advocacy. Since 2019 FAR is also an UNHCR implementing partner in providing legal aid to stateless people in Bulgaria.
Following sustained efforts by UNHCR and FAR, including in collaboration with the European Network on Statelessness you’ve achieved some major improvements in the treatment of stateless people in a remarkable short space of time. What motivated the Bulgarian government to introduce a statelessness determination procedure, and how were they persuaded to fix some of its initial shortcomings?
The changes didn’t happen overnight. In the last two years we’ve reaped the fruits of sustained advocacy and communication efforts that went through seasons of sowing, watering and growing. After four years of hesitance, in 2012 Bulgaria acceded to the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions. It was only in December 2016 that Bulgaria adopted national legislation transposing the Conventions. Then in 2017 Bulgaria introduced a dedicated statelessness determination procedure which made the 1954 Convention operational. While all those were welcome steps, however, the qualification criteria threshold was initially set too high and the new law didn’t guarantee recognised stateless people access to rights or legal residence. In 2019, further progress was made on two fronts. Firstly, Bulgaria amended the law to provide for the right to a ‘continuous’ residence permit (for a renewable period of up to one year) for holders of stateless status and, secondly, to a large extent limit the exclusion of irregularly staying stateless people from accessing the statelessness determination procedure. The system still has important gaps, which we continue to work on, but we need to acknowledge the progress achieved. I believe that the catalyst in this regard has been the commitment by UNHCR in Bulgaria and its fruitful dialogue with the relevant Bulgarian authorities. Civil society has in turn significantly reinforced the process with consistent advocacy and communication campaigns, as well as strategic litigation, all of them supported by the European Network on Statelessness.
Despite this remarkable progress, gaps in legislation remain and there are other emerging issues such as the limited access to identity documents for Roma people living in Bulgaria, which will profoundly affect their ability to prove and enjoy citizenship. As you continue your work to fight against this and for further improvement to the statelessness determination procedure, what are the main challenges ahead?
First of all, we need to continue our work towards improving the statelessness determination procedure, enhancing the rights to reside and work and lifting the reservations to the 1954 Convention. To name a few remaining protection gaps, irregularly staying stateless people continue to be at risk of being detained when they present to the authorities to submit their statelessness application, because they do not receive a temporary residence permit during the determination process; the authorities tend to “discontinue” the determination procedure on the ground of lack of required evidence and a high standard of proof; ‘continuous’ residence status holders cannot access the labour market, etc. Furthermore, in March 2020 the Bulgarian authorities started issuing negative decisions to Palestinians on the ground that they are “citizens” of the State of Palestine.
Secondly, we need to stay vigilant to preserve the progress achieved. Recently the Bulgarian Government proposed a draft law, which would introduce new exclusion clauses from the status of a stateless persons in cases where the applicant has or used to have an identity document or if the applicant had been issued a return decision. Both UNHCR and FAR have submitted reasoned opinions against the proposed amendments.
Thirdly, we have identified the need to extend the scope of our work with regard to prevention of statelessness among Roma. This includes issues related to birth registration of Roma children, as well as inability of vulnerable people to renew their expired ID cards due to lack of property documents and therefore lack of a permanent address. This year, under a partnership agreement with ENS, we’re planning a scoping study to try and establish the number of those affected and its underlying causes, so that we can work out the solutions.
Your work to uphold the rights of stateless people has always recognised the value of good communication work, including the ENS-supported communications project, which enabled five stateless people in Bulgaria to tell their stories, as well as the joint campaign by FAR and ENS for the release of a Bidoon doctor from detention. What is the role of media and awareness raising when it comes to ending statelessness?
The ultimate objective of the legal aid advice we provide in each individual case is to enhance social justice for all people in a similar situation. Through this we gain valuable insight about the practical obstacles people face. Our aim is to raise awareness about these systemic issues among stakeholders and the civil society in order to advocate for change and communication work is an integral part of this process. It is important to highlight that our advocacy and communication activities are based on practical experience of working with stateless people and on hearing their point of view. We have published testimonies from immigration detainees (see our HEAR website) and stateless people. This year we would like to bring to light stories of Roma at risk of statelessness.
You have been involved in providing data and analysis on the situation in Bulgaria for our StatelessnessINDEX. The Index now holds comparative data for 24 countries, which is updated annually to track changes in domestic law, policy and practice. From your experience what is the value of the Index when it comes to your day-to-day work?
The Index helps us answer the not-so-easy question where does Bulgaria stand in comparison with others against the background of international law and standards. Countries across Europe have very different approaches to dealing with statelessness. There is no clear, consistent, or comprehensive approach to identifying who is stateless, granting protection to stateless people, and preventing children from being born stateless in Europe. The Statelessness Index addresses this knowledge and awareness gap through a uniform methodology and approach to looking at the situation in each country. It is also a credible and helpful advocacy tool in our work with the government as it provides a comprehensive analysis and overview of the situation, highlighting gaps and good practices.
Looking to the future what do you think are some of the biggest challenges ahead, and what keeps you positive?
Currently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic the biggest challenge is the uncertainty and not knowing for how long this state of emergency will last. Since 13 March the judiciary is in practice suspended – court cases do not move and new ones are not initiated. Appeals against detention of stateless people are no exception. The Bulgarian Parliament adopted a law that suspends the terms to initiate and conclude administrative procedures. Statelessness applications are no exception. We are very concerned that the crisis measures will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people and push them further to the edge of society.
At the same time, we know that we are not alone in these hard times. We are already an integral part of the wider community working on the issues of statelessness and now, more than ever, we need to stay connected and united. We firmly believe that the value of partnership work will help each one of us to overcome this challenge.