To hold no nationality at all, have no passport and enjoy no right to vote anywhere: that is something special. But not unheard of. Worldwide, over 10 million people are stateless and there are also cases here in the Netherlands. For more than fifty years, the Netherlands has also recognised statelessness as something special and stateless people as having special needs. The UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (from 1954) entered into force for the Netherlands in 1962 and this instrument sets out the rights to be enjoyed by stateless people. But just last week, an important Dutch advisory body concluded that “there is no proper instrument to establish statelessness in the Netherlands, which means that often cases of statelessness are left undetermined”. According to the Netherlands Advisory Committee on Migration Affairs (Advisory Committee), this must change because statelessness is something special. Their report, “No country of one’s own” contains a number of concrete recommendations that warrant our attention.
There are different ways in which a person can end up stateless. My first encounter with statelessness was with the little Omar (pseudonym). Omar was a healthy baby with two loving parents. But he faced one considerable disadvantage, right from the start: he had no nationality. He could not acquire his mother’s nationality because she was from a country where women do not enjoy an independent right to pass nationality to their children (still a problem in more than 25 countries around the world today). Nor could he get his father’s Dutch (!) nationality, because his parents were not married. His father needed to recognize his paternal link with Omar before the birth in order to automatically confer his nationality – but he didn’t know that.
Omar is not alone. Of the 2005 people who are registered as stateless in the Dutch Municipal Basic Administration (GBA) a surprising 1400 were actually born here in the Netherlands. While the nationality of these individuals is often not a purely Dutch issue, we are still forced to conclude that the Netherlands is contributing to the creation of statelessness. The Netherlands has a safeguard in its nationality law according to which children like Omar can opt for Dutch nationality after three years. However, in practice, the Advisory Committee has pointed out a number of problems in the implementation of this policy. A particularly troublesome issue is the condition that Dutch law stipulates for the exercise of this right of option, namely that the child is lawfully resident – a requirement that is, quite simple, in violation of the Netherlands’ international obligations (1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness). Thanks to this requirement, many children are unable to exercise their right to a nationality. There are currently 85 stateless children registered in the GBA who were born here and are now four years old or more, but who cannot opt for Dutch nationality because they do not have a residence permit. The Netherlands is failing these children. This is why the Advisory Committee report urges to “drop the condition of lawful stay for the right of option for children born in the Netherlands”.
For many people, the first encounter with statelessness is through the story of Victor Navorski, the character played by Tom Hanks in “The Terminal”. As creatively demonstrated in this film, some stateless migrants find themselves stuck in limbo. In the film, limbo has a physical manifestation: Victor is trapped at the airport, he cannot leave through the exit doors because he has no permission to enter the country, but he also cannot board a plane to leave and go elsewhere because he does not have a valid passport. In the Netherlands, statelessness is also not a ground for a residence permit, but there is also no other country to which a stateless person can return. This can mean that a stateless person spends a long time trapped in immigration detention or is faced with the daily struggle of survival as an irregular migration in the Netherlands. This situation is not in anyone’s interest and requires a humane and practical solution. The Advisory Committee has therefore recommended that the Netherlands establish a procedure for determining whether a person is stateless and the grant of residence on that basis.
The Advisory Committee’s report demonstrates very clearly how the Netherlands can make just a few small policy adjustments to bring real change to a small group of people. It will also help to generate more understanding for stateless people. As a stateless woman once explained in an interview to UNHCR: “When I tell people that I am stateless, what I see in their faces is shock, ignorance and mistrust. Each time you have to explain. It’s as if you have to prove your right to exist!” It is vital to fight against this ignorance. Statelessness is something special, but a stateless person is also a person.
This blog is an English translation of a similar piece that was published on the public comments page of Dutch newspaper Trouw on Thursday 12 December 2013.Dr Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme