Europe’s stateless locked in limbo

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

More than 10 million people around the world are stateless. 600,000 of those are in Europe. [Anjo Khan/ Shutterstock]

The European Parliament is currently holding intense discussions on the overhaul of the EU’s Common European Asylum System. But MEP Jean Lambert warns that one group of people remain absent from the debate: the stateless.

Jean Lambert is a British MEP with the Greens/EFA group and represents the Green Party at national level.

Last week, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, voted to significantly improve proposed EU laws that govern how we receive people seeking refuge from some of the most troubled parts of the world.

This includes calling for a ban on member states detaining children who are asylum applicants in detention centres. However, one group of people who are largely absent from these discussions are the stateless.

To be stateless is to not be recognised as a citizen by any state. It is a legal anomaly that often prevents people from accessing fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights.

This means that children cannot go to school, pregnant women cannot access healthcare, those of university age are barred from continuing their studies and mothers and fathers are left unable to support their families. Statelessness affects more than 10 million people around the world and at least 600,000 in Europe.

Statelessness occurs in Europe both among recent migrants and people who have lived in the same place for generations, such as many Roma who remain stateless because of ethnic discrimination.

Most European countries therefore frequently encounter stateless people in their asylum systems, making this an issue that we as law makers, as well as the authorities implementing our response to people seeking protection on the ground, must seek to better understand and address.

In 2015, almost 20,000 of the 1.3 million people who applied for asylum in the EU were recorded as stateless and a further 22,000 were of ‘unknown citizenship’. In short, more than 3% of asylum applicants in the EU face a nationality problem.

Meanwhile, two of the top three countries of origin of those seeking sanctuary in Europe – Syria and Iraq – have statelessness challenges and nationality laws that prevent women who give birth outside the country from passing on their nationality to their children.

A pan-European report published today (4 May) by the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) underlines how EU countries are shirking their international obligations to protect people with no nationality and often subjecting these men, women and even children to unlawful detention.

The report is being launched at the network’s annual conference in Budapest whose theme is one with which we are all becoming too familiar: immigration detention.

Hungary may be most frequently in the press for its overuse of detention, but most EU countries have a growing dependence on detention as an integral part of their migration governance systems. This concerns me, and many of my colleagues, deeply.

For many stateless people, stuck in limbo between rejection by Europe and the lack of any other country that recognises them as national, lengthy periods of detention are a very damaging reality.

I believe that ENS is right to call for states to put in place procedures to identify stateless people so that we can take steps to protect them and hope that other politicians will back this demand.

A growing number of my colleagues are becoming aware of the specific challenges facing stateless people and we will have further opportunity to focus on the issues next month at a joint hearing of the civil liberties and petitions committee dedicated to the question of statelessness.

I hope that this hearing will be the first step to increase momentum in Brussels and at a national level to stop people being locked in limbo.

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