Tuesday, 14 February 2012

GUEST BLOG: Mapping Statelessness in the United Kingdom

For too long, the situation facing stateless people in the UK has been little understood.  In light of this in November 2011, and on the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Asylum Aid and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published a joint research report Mapping Statelessness in the United Kingdom.

This year-long research was motivated by a desire to shed light on this hidden issue – basically to better understand the situation and to see what government could do to improve the way it treats stateless persons in the UK.  There were three main goals. Firstly to evaluate available data sources in order to map the number and profile of stateless persons in the UK. Secondly to gain an in-depth understanding of the situation faced by stateless persons by carrying out 37 semi-structured interviews in 10 cities across the UK. Thirdly to analyse national law, policy and practice in light of the UK’s international obligations.

It is to the UK’s credit that it is one of only 37 states that have ratified both the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons. Yet at the same time the report findings bring home the reality that ratification without proper implementation is not enough to adequately protect the rights of stateless persons. While British nationality law is generally effective at preventing statelessness among children born in the UK, there remains significant scope for improvement in the way the UK treats stateless migrants. Many of the key findings from the research relate to problems flowing from the fact that at present the UK does not have a dedicated or accessible statelessness determination procedure. This limits the ability of the UK authorities to identify which individuals are stateless in order to confer the rights owing to them under the 1954 Statelessness Convention and international human rights law.

We identified several key recommendations. Firstly the UK needs to reform its data management systems in order to more accurately record the size of the stateless population. Secondly improved guidance and training is required to enable decision-makers to better identify stateless persons who come into contact with immigration control. Thirdly the UK should follow the example of other European states by introducing a dedicated statelessness determination procedure. Fourthly this should be combined with a grant of lawful immigration status for those individuals recognised as stateless and who lack a right of residence in any other country.

Otherwise, and without any means to regularise their immigration status, stateless persons will continue to be left in limbo and at risk of destitution, arbitrary detention and other human rights infringements. Of the 37 persons interviewed for the research 12 had been detained and 28 had experienced destitution (11 of whom had spent periods sleeping rough on the streets). The vast majority had been compelled to claim asylum because that was the only route open to them but if refused found themselves left in a nightmarish legal limbo with no solution in sight. A robust statelessness determination procedure would not only reduce the risk of human rights infringements but would also help relieve pressure on an already over-stretched asylum system. Asylum Aid will be advocating that any new determination procedure should be based on forthcoming UNHCR Guidelines on the proper identification of statelessness.

As well as seeking to continue a constructive dialogue with the UK authorities about how to implement the report’s key recommendations, Asylum Aid will continue its awareness-raising and capacity-building work to help equip civil society organisations to better identify and respond to the needs of stateless persons. We will also continue to engage at the pan-European level, including through involvement with the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) bringing together non-governmental organisations, academic initiatives, and individual experts committed to address statelessness in Europe by conducting and supporting legal and policy, awareness-raising and capacity-building activities. The setting up of this network is testament to an increased understanding of the need for European governments and civil society to be better able to pick out stateless persons from their caseloads or populations of concern. The UK statelessness research, along with the recently published UNHCR mapping study in the Netherlands, also point to the critical importance of and provide a possible model for similar research in other European countries in order to raise awareness about this important but hidden issue.

Mapping Statelessness is, hopefully, the start if a much-needed conversation about statelessness in the UK and beyond – and one that concludes in a lasting and fair solution for those devastated by its effects.

Chris Nash, Asylum Aid

The full UNHCR/Asylum Aid report Mapping Statelessness in the United Kingdom is available at http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/data/files/publications/mapping_statelessness.pdf

For further information about the report or Asylum Aid’s work on statelessness contact Chris Nash at chrisn@asylumaid.org.uk