Interview with Aleksandra Semeriak Gavrilenok, Individual member of ENS and formerly stateless person


Following our recent Annual General Conference (AGC) and pan-regional conference in Madrid, we spoke to Aleksandra Semeriak Gavrilenok about her reflections on the events, her work to address statelessness among refugees and migrants in Spain, and why the perspectives of those with lived experience of statelessness must be centred in discussions and decision-making processes.

“[Policy and legal experts] may have expertise from years of working on the issue, but expertise also comes from years of experiencing statelessness, which is what stateless communities and stateless persons bring to the table.” - Aleksandra Semeriak Gavrilenok

You’ve just returned from attending the ENS Annual General Conference and the pan-regional conference “Addressing Statelessness in Europe” held in Madrid. What were the main highlights and learnings from the different events? Why do you think events like this can help in galvanising action on statelessness in Europe?

I have been a member of ENS for many years, and a highlight from this AGC was seeing how much more participation there was from stateless-led organizations, stateless communities and persons with lived experience of statelessness. It is very inspiring to see that this change is happening, and that this was also carried through to the pan-regional public conference on Addressing Statelessness in Europe.

One of the highlights of this event was seeing the commitment of different types of actors and stakeholders on a regional and national level. Looking at the list of attendees and speakers, we see reflected the priority that ENS has already identified in terms of making sure that there's participation from actors at all levels of the decision-making process. This makes it clear to the traditional decision makers that stateless-led organisations and stateless individuals must be heard and carefully listened to, and how their experience can be of value. I believe that is why it's important that events like these happen. You may have expertise from years of working on the issue, but expertise also comes from years of experiencing statelessness, which is what stateless communities and stateless persons bring to the table.

What motivated you to join the European Network on Statelessness as a member? What are the benefits and challenges of being part of such a diverse and dynamic network?

What motivated me was my own experience as a former stateless person. Back in 2015, I was looking on the internet for some answers to my own situation and what the passport of a non-citizen, in my case of Latvia, meant for me. Every time I had to take the bureaucratic steps to renew my documentation, there was a lack of understanding of the situation and how it should be legally addressed, especially because I was living already in Spain, outside the country where I was born.

I remember coming across the ENS website and I saw a blog post by Valeriia Cherednichenko on Statelessness in Spain and the Saharawi community. It was eye-opening to me to see how statelessness was interconnected to other realities. I was also looking into how my studies and master's in migration could be applied to a reality that was not only important to me personally, but that I thought was important to address as a human rights issue in Europe.

One of the benefits of the network is how dynamic the response to statelessness is and how complementary the different members are to each other. It is not only a matter of raising awareness that statelessness exists and how it affects people, but also of strategic litigation and political recommendations for legislative reform. Not every member needs to do everything, because through collaboration we can find effective answers to addressing the issue.

Of course, there are also challenges. When there is such a variety of priorities and perspectives and when all the members are not in the same place, it can be difficult to see the big picture of what is happening. Ten years ago, with 40 members, it was a bit easier, but with over 180 members, it’s more challenging, although this also means that more opportunities can be created.

It is especially important that stateless persons and communities understand this big picture to make sure that nothing that is important to people with lived experience is missed. For effective results, you cannot work on statelessness from a legal perspective alone. Statelessness is also a mental health issue, it is a social issue, and everything needs to be considered in relation to one another to create a successful response.

ENS is very active in informing the network about the membership and the actions that are being taken through the newsletter, webinars, or conferences. This sharing of information and knowledge is important for the network to be stronger. The AGC last week also give us the opportunity learn what members are doing and how we can support each other by sharing tools and resources, and to learn from their experience and apply something similar in our own contexts.

What are the main gaps and opportunities in Spain regarding the identification, protection and integration of stateless people? How is the national #StatelessJourneys coalition working to raise awareness and advocate for change?

On the European level, Spain has always been addressed as a good practice in terms of the statelessness determination procedure that has been place for over 20 years. In terms of protection, statelessness has been addressed within the National Reception Program for Refugees and Asylum Seekers since the very beginning. Although access to this system of social protection was limited at certain points, last year, the government issued a royal decree to grant stateless persons access to the different phases of the programme. In the case of Spain, it made sense that that both asylum seekers and those who asked for recognition of their statelessness are protected in the same way.  Although not all stateless persons are affected by forced displacement, in the reality and context of Spain, this is an important change because the majority of the statelessness cases here are Saharawi persons who have been forcibly displaced.

The royal decree makes it possible for the NGOs in Spain who are implementing the national reception programme to work with stateless persons from the moment they ask for their statelessness determination until the end the process. Still, there are some challenges that were identified by those working in the system in terms of some key differences in how stateless persons were accessing their rights in comparison to asylum seekers and refugees.

This is why some of us ENS members who are based in Spain sat together and thought about how we could address better the needs of stateless persons. We recognized that there were some actions that would help ensure the protection of stateless persons and an effective integration process for those who were asking for this SDP in Spain.

This happened while ENS was initiating it’s work on the #StatelessJourneys campaign, which provided us with momentum. We began by thoroughly analysing the situation in Spain from a legal and a social perspective. We also analysed whether the protection, reception and integration processes of stateless persons in Spain had any gaps and could be improved. From here we launched the national stateless journey campaign, #DesplazamientosApátridas. We created a campaign statement to explain to the wider public, civil society, and other stateless communities why we were doing this work. We also came up with policy brief that included a specific list of political recommendations outlining the gaps that could be addressed.

It was important for us to come up with concrete actions that are realistic and to ensure that there is a coherent and holistic approach to the protection of the most vulnerable persons in Spain. Many of the recommendations that we have listed in the policy brief go towards this holistic response to statelessness in the context of forced migration, and some of them are in line with what was already in place for those with refugee status. It is a matter of understanding that statelessness cannot just be addressed in the same way as the migration process: it is a very specific situation from both a legal perspective and a social perspective.

You have been involved in collecting and sharing the stories of stateless people in Spain. Why do you think it is important to engage and work with stateless communities and individuals?

The recommendations for political reform are the changes that needed to be done to the law, but for these changes to make sense, we also thought it was important to include the stories of people who are stateless in Spain and have had experience of the SDP. 

The process was very open - there were no questions, just a broad request to those we had a conversation with to share what they considered important for the public to know about their experience. There can be a lack of trust towards the administration or towards organizations that are working on the topic, so it’s very important in the storytelling process to make stateless persons and communities feel comfortable in sharing their experiences. Of course, not everybody needs to feel comfortable sharing their situation. The number of stories is not as important as the content of the stories, and it really needs to be understood that even a single experience helps us to better understand the full picture and enables us to analyse whether what we are doing is the priority or whether there is something that we have overlooked.

Statelessness is often addressed, at least by some actors, as niche issue and a marginalized topic, something that is not a priority to be addressed. And that has been also reflected in terms of how stateless persons and communities have seen themselves. During the conference in Madrid, some of the representatives from stateless communities were sharing with me that they didn't know that other communities of stateless persons were going through similar challenges. Some were not aware of the progress that has been made through engagement with politicians, with authorities, with academia. ENS gave them the opportunity to learn about and learn from each other, to better understand that their own situation is part of a bigger issue, and that addressing it on a national level can contribute to improvement on a regional level and also on a global level.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of statelessness in Spain and Europe? What keeps you motivated and inspired in your work to end statelessness?

It’s crucial that stateless persons and communities are considered by the authorities, by NGOs, and by academia as their peers. My hopes and expectations are that this collaboration among the different actors is strengthened and that stateless persons and communities are at the centre of the discussions about them and can participate effectively in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. This brings hope to the stateless communities that are still struggling to be recognized as stateless, to be recognized as nationals of the country where they were born, or to be recognized as citizens with full access to their fundamental rights, which is something that should not depend on the status that they have. 

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