“Your identification, please”. I hand over my passport to the security guard of the former prison while I think of the irony of this place, as most of its residents have been detained because they lack identification papers. I am visiting Thomas Philip Guya (39) at the ‘Vluchthaven’ in Amsterdam, where over a hundred people with rejected asylum claims seek refuge until they find a durable solution.
Thomas was born in a small village in what is currently South Sudan, and lived there until civil war forcefully displaced him to the north of the country at age thirteen. He lived in relative peace until violence once more forced him to leave his home. Eleven years ago he fled to the Netherlands for protection. Yet, his asylum claims were rejected “because I failed to prove I was fleeing from Sudan”. As an illegal immigrant, Thomas lives on the margins of society where he is unable to work or build a future. Tired of being an outcast, he now wishes to return to his native place, despite the civil and political instability.
Yet, the creation of an independent South Sudanese state in 2011 complicates Thomas’ ability to return home. When new states are created, the newly drafted nationality laws are often limited in scope, incompatible, or may use tight deadlines. As a result, people may fall through the cracks and are at risk of becoming stateless. Indeed, an amendment to the nationality act of Sudan provides that those who “de jure or de facto” acquire South Sudanese nationality automatically lose their Sudanese nationality, irrespective of a person’s connection to either country. There are no explicit laws for individuals who wish to retain their Sudanese nationality. This poses a particular threat to those living outside the newly created state, as “southerners” had to regularise their nationality status within nine months after the independence of south Sudan.
At this point, Thomas went to see the Sudanese Ambassador in The Hague. “I wanted to go back to Sudan, but the Ambassador of the Republic of Sudan told me I was no longer Sudanese, because South Sudan became an independent country”. Recently, Sudan announced that a decision will soon be made to activate the pending four freedoms agreements, which provides freedom of residence, movement, work and ownership in South Sudan and Sudan. Yet, there remains a lack of political will to resolve the nationality of people who have a connection to both Sudan and South Sudan. A curious face peeks around the colourful sheet that hangs from Thomas’ small bedroom doorframe. “This one is from Sudan,” Thomas explains. “We are friends, but our countries refuse to work together. It’s all just politics”.
Ever since South Sudan set up an Embassy in Brussels, Thomas has been trying to acquire a document to travel back to his native place, of which he only holds vague childhood memories. Yet, the ambassador rejected him, because he didn’t have his identification documents anymore. Thus, neither Sudan nor South Sudan is willing to accept Thomas as its citizen. This suggests that Thomas has become a stateless person. And as a stateless person, you are denied one of the most fundamental rights associated with nationality: the right to return.
Thomas shows me around the Vluchthaven, where he cooks, washes and plays football with his friends. The city of Amsterdam gives him thirty-five Euros per week for food and medication. He explains that he needs medicines for his stomach. He picks up a little jar and shakes it: “There is only one pill left”. When I ask him about his condition, he explains how stress made him sick when he was detained. “They took me from the asylum centre, because I didn’t have any papers”. He was released after fourteen months, and joined the We Are Here movement, which pleads for better treatment of asylum seekers in the Netherlands. He explains that “illegals are not part of the Dutch system. We have no rights, no home, and no job. We have nothing”. He picks up a pile of papers with quotes from politicians and human rights lawyers advocating for better treatment of illegals in the Netherlands. I read the first: “The obligation to carry your ID card forces illegals to live their lives in invisibility to make sure they will not get detained”. Indeed, Thomas explains that inside the Vluchthaven he feels safe, but “when I am out on the streets I am scared. I fear the police because I am illegal. They may detain me again”.
Earlier this month Thomas received some hopeful news. The Embassy of South Sudan in Brussels is willing to provide him with a laisser passer travel document which he can use to return to South Sudan within three months of its issuance. Thomas explains that he doesn’t want to be in the Netherlands any longer. He picks up a recent newspaper article about the fighting in South Sudan, and continues: “…But the situation in South Sudan is also really difficult”. It is also questionable whether Thomas will actually be granted citizenship upon return. “Do you think I should go?” he finally asks me. I hesitate, but respond by asking him where he feels like he belongs in the world. He shakes his head. “There is no home for me in this world. There is only one home, an ideal home, and it is there in my head”.Roselinde den Boer, Statelessness Programme Research Clinic participant 2013-2014